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Hibbler v. Ingalls Shipbuilding Shipyard

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 17, 2019

JOHN HIBBLER APPELLANT
v.
INGALLS SHIPBUILDING SHIPYARD A/K/A HUNTINGTON INGALLS INCORPORATED APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/20/2018

          JACKSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. ROBERT P. KREBS TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: ALSEE McDANIEL.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: RICHARD P. SALLOUM.

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., McCARTY AND C. WILSON, JJ.

          C. WILSON, J.

         ¶1. John Hibbler was injured in a work-related accident on September 28, 2012. Having received payment through workers' compensation, Hibbler later filed suit for damages against Huntington Ingalls Incorporated (Ingalls). Ingalls had contracted with Hibbler's employer, Avaya Government Solutions (Avaya), to install telecommunications infrastructure on a ship that Ingalls was building. Ingalls filed a motion for summary judgment, which the circuit court granted. Hibbler now appeals. Finding no error, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Hibbler worked for Avaya as a network-systems engineer. In August 2012, Hibbler and three other Avaya engineers began installing a telephone-communications system on a helicopter-assault ship. Ingalls had contracted with the United States Navy to build the ship. Hibbler's work was to take three months and included the installation of cabling under the raised floor of the ship's communications room. According to Hibbler, Avaya worked in coordination with painters employed by a separate contractor. Hibbler and his Avaya co-workers installed cables under the raised floor in a section of the communications room during the day shift. The painting crew followed at night to paint the cables, replacing the floor decking when they were finished. Occasionally, the ship's decking was not replaced, and Hibbler and his co-workers would navigate the communications room by walking on the squared steel-floor framing.

         ¶3. On September 28, 2012, Hibbler began a twelve-hour shift at 7:00 a.m. Between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. that day, he was pulling cable line across the communications room floor when he stepped on an unsecured deck plate. The plate gave way, causing Hibbler to fall into a hole that was about three-feet deep. As a result of his accident, Hibbler injured his back and hit his head on a cabinet as he fell. He experienced dizziness.

         ¶4. These events took place at the Ingalls-owned shipyard located in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the ship was being constructed. Ingalls avers that it was the "prime contractor to the U.S. Navy" for the construction of the ship at issue.[1] Ingalls also asserts that it required all subcontractors, like Avaya, to carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees under the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Act (MWCA)[2] and the Longshore and Harbors Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA)[3] until completion and final acceptance of the contractors' work. Following Hibbler's accident, Avaya's workers' compensation insurer began paying workers' compensation benefits to Hibbler under the MWCA and continued those payments through May 31, 2013. Thereafter, the insurer paid additional benefits under the LHWCA.

         ¶5. On September 25, 2015, Hibbler filed a complaint against Ingalls in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Mississippi. In his complaint, Hibbler alleged entitlement to compensatory damages and other relief against Ingalls due to Ingalls's "negligence in failing to maintain and otherwise secure the flooring upon the ship . . . ." Ingalls answered, asserting that Hibbler's "sole and exclusive remedy . . . is under any applicable workers' compensation statutes including . . . the [LHWCA] and the [MWCA]."

         ¶6. After the parties conducted discovery, Ingalls filed a motion for summary judgment on May 29, 2018. Ingalls asserted that it was not liable for injuries to an independent contractor's employee arising out of performance of the contracted work. Ingalls also argued that it was immune to Hibbler's negligence suit as a "statutory employer" under the MWCA because Hibbler had already received his workers' compensation benefits through its subcontractor Avaya's workers' compensation coverage. In support of its motion, Ingalls relied on portions of Hibbler's deposition and provided the circuit court with an affidavit from Steven Pierce, Ingalls's "Manager - Risk Management." In his affidavit, Pierce testified that Ingalls, as "a contractor engaged in the business of ship construction and repair," required all its subcontractors to carry workers' compensation insurance. Pierce's affidavit did not mention the particular ship on which Hibbler was injured or Avaya's contract specifically.

         ¶7. In response to Ingalls's motion, Hibbler asserted that Ingalls's negligence was the direct and proximate cause of his injuries. Hibbler argued that under the MWCA, his "acceptance of workers' compensation benefits [did] not affect nor preclude [his] right to sue any other party at law for such injuries."

         ¶8. On July 19, 2018, the circuit court held a hearing on Ingalls's motion for summary judgment. The next day, the circuit court granted Ingalls's motion, finding:

(1) Ingalls was [Hibbler's] statutory employer at the time of the accident and is therefore immune from [Hibbler's] claims in this case by the ...

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