NEW ORLEANS – Last week the Louisiana Supreme Court handed down a legal precedent that appears to put a halt on several tort cases in which employees working in loud work places have sued their employers for personal injury over hearing loss instead of pursuing workers’ compensation actions.
Over the past few years there has been an uptick in the number of personal injury lawsuits filed by industrial workers who claim they received personal injuries through working in loud, mostly industrial workplaces.
However, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of defendant Graphic Packing International Inc., the owner and operator of a paper mill, box and carton plant in West Monroe where plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit claim their hearing was damaged due to being subjected to hazardous industrial noises during their employment at the facility. While the 4th Judicial District Court in Ouachita Parish initially ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted them damages of $50,000 apiece, that ruling was later overturned on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the appeals court finding in favor of Graphic Packing International Inc. The majority decision noted that while the hearing loss may have occurred it was during the course and scope of the class members' employment which should be regulated as an “occupational disease” under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act.
Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Greg G. Guidry said the hearing loss is clearly covered by the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (LWCA).
“Interpreting the Act and mindful of the clear legislative purpose behind the workers’ compensation scheme -- a principle that has been well-explained in our jurisprudence, we find occupational noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) falls squarely within the parameters of the LWCA,” he wrote.
Notably, Justice Jeannette Theriot Knoll and Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson dissented, saying they do not believe NIHL is a typical workers’ compensation injury as currently covered by state law.
“[W]e note, NIHL is not an illness; rather, it is an injury resulting from physical trauma,” Knoll wrote in her dissent.
The ruling sets a legal precedent that will have immediate ramifications in thousands of similar cases that have been filed throughout the state.
Melissa Landry, executive director of legal watchdog Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the high court’s ruling closes a loophole that had been exploited by plaintiffs’ attorneys for years.
“The Supreme Court ruling in this case is a huge win for common sense,” she said. “Gradual hearing loss is already covered by employers through our state’s excellent workers compensation system. This case boils down to enterprising lawyers looking for new ways to circumvent existing law in an attempt to extract more money from our job creators and employers. Fortunately, the high court saw right through their misguided argument.”
The Supreme Court’s decision was also welcomed by the state’s business community.
Will Green, director of Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s Civil Justice Reform Council, said now such cases will be properly processed through existing workers’ compensation laws.
“The business community applauds the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling; however, we know this doesn't end the legal process. We trust these cases will be adjudicated fairly under the workers' compensation statute,” he said.