An illegally employed minor can't sue for on-the-job injuries

By Charmaine Little | Feb 7, 2019

NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of Louisiana determined Austin Griggs, an illegally employed and injured minor who committed a prohibited task while working at a party rental business, was only owed remedies via Workers’ Compensation, not a lawsuit against his employer.

The Supreme Court ruled Jan. 30 to uphold the decision of the Court of Appeals, First Circuit, which reversed in part and affirmed in part a trial court's ruling that dismissed the plaintiffs' tort claims with prejudice.

"The Court of Appeals found Austin's (Griggs) claims were subject to the exclusive remedy provision contained in the Workers' Compensation law," the Supreme Court wrote. "Accordingly, we must affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals insofar as it reversed the judgment of the district court and held plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy is under the workers’ compensation law."

Griggs’ mother, Tasha Griggs, sued Bounce N’ Around Inflatables LLC and Jack Alan LeBlanc following her son’s injury.

The court evaluated a previous case in which it also ruled that a minor was exclusively entitled to Workers’ Compensation as they were performing an illegal task at the time they were hurt. It pointed to a Louisiana Workers’ Compensation statute that says, “The provisions of this Chapter shall also apply to every person performing services arising out of and incidental to his employment in the course of his own trade, business, or occupation, or in the course of his employer’s trade, business, or occupation.” 

When it comes to the “every person” term, the court ruled that those words are not broad or ambiguous, but covers all workers.

The plaintiffs also argued that the employer shouldn’t benefit from Workers’ Compensation. The court said it’s not its place to acknowledge tort actions for minors who are not only negligently injured but also illegally employed and performing illegal tasks.

"In the absence of any legislative exemption of minors from the exclusivity provisions of the workers’ compensation provisions, we are powerless to recognize any action in tort for minors who are negligently injured while illegally employed or engaged in illegal tasks," the ruling states.

While BNA didn’t break any rules when it hired Austin at 14, it didn’t comply with policies that it would have to keep an employment certificate for him on file. After he turned 15, Austin Griggs was injured after he fell off of a forklift and an inflatable hit him on the back. The ruling states riding on the forklift as a minor was an illegal activity.

BNA’s Workers’ Compensation insurer paid, and he went back to work after his mother cleared him. 

Tasha Griggs went on to sue BNA, its owner and its insurer for tort damages from the injury. The defendants appealed after a trial court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor and awarded $125,000 in general damages and $24,517 in special damages.

The appeals court then reversed and dismissed the tort claims with prejudice. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that the exclusive remedy provisions were applicable.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson dissented. 

“I am deeply troubled by the majority opinion which holds that a minor child who is both illegally hired and working in violation of the Child Labor Law, is denied the right to seek tort compensation against the employer when that child is injured during the course of employment,” said Johnson. 

While she noted the Workers’ Compensation statute applies to “every person,” Johnson said she found an exception in this case considering the teen was illegally hired and doing an illegal task when injured.

Justice Jefferson D. Hughes III also dissented and said the Workers’ Compensation statute interferes with two others, including one with criminal penalties.

Justice Scott J. Crichton concurred with the majority opinion but added a separate note that the employer did take part in hiring a minor illegally when it didn’t keep the needed certification and noted that he was troubled that the employer would still benefit via Workers’ Compensation.

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