Texas Workers Compensation Non-Subscriber Case Law Update Presented by: Jerry Fazio, Esq. Owen & Fazio, P.C. 7557 Rambler Road, Ste 1465 Dallas, TX 75231
1. Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement
In Re Standard Meat, Co., No. CC-06-02047-D, 2007 WL 730660 (Tex. App.—Dallas, March 9, 2007, no pet. h.)(mem. op.). An employee sued her non-subscriber employee for injuries that allegedly occurred while working on the food assembly line. Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • At the trial court, the Court determined that that the McCarran-Ferguson Act prevented the enforcement of the arbitration agreement under the Federal Arbitration Act because arbitration under the FAA would invalidate, impair or supersede the rights and protections granted the employee under the Texas Labor Code common defenses and the Texas Arbitration Act. • The employer sought mandamus relief in the Court of Appeals arguing that the McCarran-Ferguson Act does not reverse-preempt the FAA and the arbitration agreement was neither procedurally or substantively unconscionable.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • The Court of Appeals held : • the arbitration agreement specifically pointed out that that disputes were subject to arbitration and that the FAA applied. • that the McCarran-Ferguson Act did not preclude the application of the FAA to preempt state insurance law. • the employee failed to make any argument as to how the application of the FAA would “invalidate, impair, or supercede” the statute and that without a showing of inconsistency with the FAA, the state law is not preempted. • that the employee made no argument as to how the TAA was in the business of regulating insurance and thus, FAA is not reverse-preempted because of any inconsistency with the TAA.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • Sosa v. PARCO Oilfield Serv., Ltd., No.2:05-CV-153, 2006 WL 2821882 (E.D. Tex. Sept. 27, 2006). • The employee was allegedly injured when a co-employee operating a trench machine snagged electrical cables that became entangled in the digging apparatus of the trencher and wrapped around the employees legs. • The employer was a non-subscriber and had an arbitration provision in their ERISA Occupational Injury Benefit plan that stated: “In the event that there is any dispute arising out of any accident or occurrence, or any claim for or regarding insurance or other benefits under this plan…you and the company agree to submit all disputes exclusively to final and binding arbitration.”
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • Specifically, the employee alleged: • that the Texas Labor Code prohibited pre-injury waiver of rights by employees • that the benefit plan and arbitration agreement failed to satisfy the “fair notice requirements” • that consideration for the injury benefit plan was illusory • that the plan was unconscionable, and that the arbitration agreement was unreasonable per se under 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1(c)(4).
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • The Court held that: • although the negligence and gross negligence claims were subject to the arbitration provision, the wrongful denial of benefits claim was not subject to the arbitration provision because the arbitration provision conflicted with the relevant ERISA regulation • the non-waiver provision of the Texas Labor Code was preempted by the Supremacy Clause and the FAA. • even if the fair notice requirement was not met, any defect in the Plan as a whole did not invalidate the arbitration agreement. • only if a party retains the unilateral, unrestricted right to terminate the arbitration agreement, it is illusory. Here, the parties’ agreement regarding compensation for occupational injures served as sufficient consideration because the arbitration clause was party of the underlying contract.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • Further, the Court held: • that the Plan was not unconscionable and did not lack mutuality because there was no evidence that the employee didn’t understand the agreement. • that the employee accepted benefits under the Plan and simultaneously sued the plan for wrongfully terminating those benefits. As such, he must accept the terms, including the arbitration provision. • With regards to 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1(c)(4), the Court held that it was the interplay between the FAA’s presumption and the language of the Department of Labor’s regulations that caused the Court to the order arbitration of the negligence claim while denying arbitration of the claim for benefits.
In Re Brookshire Brothers, Ltd., 198 S.W.3d 381, (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2006, pet. denied). An employee was injured on the job. More than a year after the injury, the employer enacted a policy requiring arbitration and moved to compel the current case to arbitration. The employer argued that the language of the arbitration policy suggested it applied to prior claims, but the trial court denied the motion. Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • The Court of Appeals denied the writ of mandamus and held: • the arbitration policy did not specifically include prior claims and construed the language against the employer/drafter. • that the arbitration policy language seemed to apply prospectively and that because the employee’s injury occurred before the arbitration policy was enacted and effective, the employee was entitled to litigate the claim in state court. • The Court then went on to attack the arbitration policy as procedurally unconscionable.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • In re RRGT, Inc., No. 04-06-00012-CV, 2006, 2006 WL 622736 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Mar. 15, 2006, no pet.) (mem. op.). • As a condition of continued employment, an employer provided training to all employees the employer’s mandatory alternative dispute resolution procedures. • Although the employee refused to sign an acknowledgement of the occupational injury benefit plan, he continued working for his employer. • The employee was later injured on the job during an incident with another employee. • The trial court denied the employer’s motion to compel arbitration.
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Mediation, Arbitration and Settlement • The Court of Appeals held: • that the employee’s failure to sign the acknowledgment was irrelevant. • that sufficient evidence suggested that the employee received notice of the arbitration agreement and accepted the terms of the Plan as a matter of law.
Discovery Disputes in Non-Subscriber Cases • Lopez v. La Madeleine, 200 S.W.3d 854 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet. h.). • An employee sued his employer after the employee alleged that his foot slipped on a damaged drain cover and he fell. • During the discovery period, the employee requested that the employer produce “any tape recordings, pictures or videos of Plaintiff or any witness in this case.” • The employer failed to produce these items as it stated that it was not currently in possession of any documents that met the request. • A pretrial order stated that evidence not produced would not be admitted. Despite this order, the Trial Court admitted a surveillance videotape and photos at trial that showed the employee had testified falsely about the extent of his injuries.
The Court of Appeals held that there was no evidence to support the trial court’s implied finding that the employer met its burden to establish lack of unfair surprise or unfair prejudice to Lopez regarding the introduction of the undisclosed videotape and photographs. Further, it was held that error in admitting this evidence probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment. Discovery Disputes in Non-Subscriber Cases
In re Starflite Mgmt. Group, Inc., 162 S.W.3d 409 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2005, orig. proceeding). The underlying lawsuit arose when an employee was killed in an aircraft crash. The decedent was a charter pilot and employee of the non-subscriber employer StarFlite Management Group. Plaintiff sought to compel Defendant to produce numerous financial documents during discovery, including copies of bank statements, cancelled checks, tax returns and credit card invoices. The trial court ordered the production of the documents, and Defendant subsequently filed a writ of mandamus which was initially granted. Discovery Disputes in Non-Subscriber Cases
Discovery Disputes in Non-Subscriber Cases • The Court noted that since it had not been provided with a copy of Plaintiff’s re-plead cause of action, it was hindered in its attempt to determine which discovery requests were proper. • Nevertheless, the Court stated that discovery requests must be reasonably tailored to include only relevant matters. • Based on the lack of more specific information and a properly plead cause of action, the Court conditionally granted mandamus relief to the employer and directed the Trial Court to modify its order to limit production to relevant items.
Jack in the Box, Inc. v. Skiles, --- S.W.3d ---, 2007 WL 431045 (Tex. 2007). Mr. Skiles was employed as a tractor-trailer driver for twenty-four years by Jack in the Box and used an automatic lift gate to unload food products at the stores. The drivers were instructed that they if encountered problems with the lift gate, they should call the company’s independent service center and report the malfunction. A maintenance person would be sent out to make the repairs. Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • During a delivery during lunch rush, the lift gate malfunctioned on the employee’s truck. • The employee used a ladder to climb over the non-functioning lift gate so that he could get to the food supplies needed by the restaurant. • The employee stated that when he landed on the floor of the trailer, both of his knees “popped” and were injured. • The employee argued that the employer had a duty to warn him of the dangers of using a ladder to climb over a lift gate. • The trial court granted a no-evidence motion for summary judgment in favor of Jack in the Box; however, this was reversed by the Court of Appeals.
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • The Texas Supreme Court held that an employer’s duty to warn an employee of a danger arises when: (1) the employment is dangerous or complex; and (2) the employer is aware of the danger and has reason to know the employee is not. • The Court held that the dangers associated with the use of a ladder to climb over a lift gate were common and obvious to anyone. • Further, the Court stated that unloading food product was a regular part of the employee’s job and he was trained on how to handle situations when the lift gate would not operate. • The Court also pointed to the fact that the employee acknowledged he voluntarily made the decision to find a ladder, jump into the trailer and unload the hamburger meat. • The Court reasoned that these facts were entirely different from Kroger v. Keng, 976 S.W.2d 882 (Tex. App.—Tyler 1998), aff’d, 23 S.W.3d 347 (Tex. 2000), where an employee was ordered by her supervisor to engage in dangerous activity that was outside of her normal job duties.
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • Aleman v. Ben E. Keith Co., --- S.W.3d ---, 2007 WL 1028989 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2007, no pet. h.). • An employee drove a delivery truck for a distributor of food service products for restaurants. • The floor of the employee’s truck was wet because the refrigeration unit inside the trailer leaked water. • While unloading goods from the trailer using a dolly, the employee slipped on the ramp because his feet were wet from the floor of the trailer. The employee subsequently broke his leg.
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • The employee sued his employer for: • failing to properly maintain his equipment • failing to adequately instruct and/or train its employees on the use of its equipment and safety procedures, loading and/or unloading products and • failing to warn employees of dangerous conditions. • The employer moved for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no evidence that the employer breached any duty or that any such breached proximately caused the injury. • A response was filed by the employee who included evidence from deposition transcripts. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • The Court of Appeals held that: • the employees response to the motion for summary judgment satisfied the requirements to “point out evidence” as to raise a fact issue since they produced deposition transcripts. • an employer is not an insurer of its employees’ safety and that an employer owes no duty to warn of hazards that are commonly known or already appreciated by the employee and no duty to provide equipment or assistance that is unnecessary to the job’s safe performance. • the employee lacked evidence to show that the employer’s failure to property maintain its trailers was the cause in fact of his injury –rather, he produced evidence that he failure to maintain the trailer caused water to be present on the floor.
Employer’s Duties to Employees and Third Parties • The Court also did not find the employees allegation of failure to train persuasive as the employee produced no evidence supporting his allegation that backing down a ramp with a dolly is safer than walking down the ramp with the dolly first. • The Court reasoned that the evidence indicated that the employee was the only person who was aware of the water on the floor before the accident. As such, the employer owed no duty to warn of hazards that are commonly known or already appreciated by the employee.
Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • De Los Santos v. Healthmark Park Manor, L.P., No. 06-05-00014-CV, 2005 WL 2708497 (Tex. App.—Texarkana Sept. 23, 2005, no pet.) (mem. op.). • An employee slipped and fell, sustaining a broken kneecap, when a co-employee unknowingly dropped a bottle of hand sanitizer which spilled onto the floor. • The employee sued arguing that the employer was liable for her injuries under a theory of premises liability. • The employer argued there was no evidence that the employer had actual or constructive knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm.
The Court of Appeals held that even though the co-employee was responsible for dropping the bottle of hand sanitizer onto the floor, this alone was insufficient to show that the employer had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber
Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • Kroger Co. v. Elwood, 197 S.W.3d 793 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam). • Plaintiff, a clerk at a Kroger grocery store, was injured when a customer shut her vehicle door on his hand while he was unloading the customer’s groceries from the shopping cart into the vehicle • The employee filed suit against his non-subscriber employer for negligence and the employee received a verdict in his favor. • The employer petitioned for review, asserting that there was no evidence to support the verdict.
The Supreme Court of Texas held that although an employer has a duty to provide a safe workplace, there was no evidence that loading groceries on a sloped parking lot was an unusually dangerous situation that required them to warn or train Plaintiff to avoid the actions he took. Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber
Barrientos v. Maxwell Lumber Co., Inc., No. 12-06-00148-CV, 2007 WL 259545 (Tex. App.—Tyler, Jan. 31, 2007, no pet. h.)(mem. op.) While gathering lumber cut by a Cornell saw, an employee injured two fingers on his right hand. The employee argued that his non-subscriber employer had failed to create, implement and enforce safety policies, allowed another employee to operate the saw when that employee could not operate that equipment safely and failed to properly maintain the Cornell saw. Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber
Insufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • The Court of Appeals held that: • there was no evidence that employees did not wear certain safety equipment while working on the saw or that this equipment would have prevented the employee’s injuries. • the employee also failed to show that any failure of the employer to provide, implement and enforce safety rules and regulations caused his injuries. • although the employee argued that he did not receive proper training, the employee himself stated that he was told to watch other employees, that he read warning signs on the saw and followed them. • the employee simply relied upon, “conjecture, guess, and speculation” to connect the employer’s conduct to his injuries.
Woods v. Texas Aggregates, L.L.C., 459 F.3d 600 (5th Cir. 2006). An employee sued his employer as a result of a work-place injury. The employer removed the case to federal court alleging that the Occupational Injury Benefit Plan by the employer preempted the employee’s non-subscriber negligence claim. Preemption and Removal: ERISA
Preemption and Removal: ERISA • The 5th Circuit remanded this case back to state court and held that a workplace negligence claim only implicates the employer-employee relationship and not the administrator-beneficiary relationship necessary for ERISA preemption.
Preemption and Removal: ERISA • Leake v. Kroger Texas, L.P., No. 3:04-CV-2707-D, 2006 WL 2842024 (N.D. Tex. September 28, 2006). • An employee sued her employer, Kroger Texas L.P. to recover Plan benefits that she claimed were wrongfully denied of her. • The employer had a Occupational Injury or Disease Benefit Plan and the employee suffered an on-the-job injury to her hands.
Preemption and Removal: ERISA • The employer denied the employee’s claim for Plan benefits stated that: • (1) the employee failed to report the injury to her supervisor as soon as she was aware of it; • (2) the employee used the services of an unapproved health care provider and • (3) the employee’s injury did not qualify as an occupational injury under the Plan.
Preemption and Removal: ERISA • The employee contended that the employer violated ERISA and related regulations in handling her claim and that the Plan Administrator had abused their discretion in denying benefits. • The Court held that the employee failed to establish continuous ERISA procedural violations and that the Plan administrator did not abuse their discretion. • The Court granted the summary judgment motion and dismissed the suit.
Sufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • Brookshire Grocery Co. v. Goss, 208 S.W.3d 706 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2006, pet. granted). • An employee went into a company cooler to obtain some food items and hit her shin on a lowboy cart that was sitting in the cooler and used to move inventory. • As the employee hit her shin, she reached and turned around to grab a shelf to keep from falling and pulled her back and injured her knee. • The employee brought suit against her employer, alleging both ordinary negligence and premises liability. A jury verdict was returned in favor of the employee in the amount of $726,078.50.
Sufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • On appeal, the employer argued that: • 1) the employee failed to show that the employer owed the employee a duty relating to a safe workplace, • 2) that the employee failed to present legally or factually sufficient evidence on the element of proximate cause, • 3) that the employee failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain the jury’s damage award and • 4) that the Trial Court committed reversible error in refusing to give the appropriate premises liability instruction requested by the employer.
Sufficient Evidence Against a Non-Subscriber • The Court of Appeals held that: • there was legally sufficient evidence to show that the lowboy cart in the cooler posed a threat of injury to the employee. • because the employer had acknowledged the cart as a risk in its own safety inspection checklist, the Court found that there was legally sufficient evidence of proximate cause, as the employee was only required to prove knowledge of the general danger. • although the employee pled both ordinary negligence and premises liability, the fact that the employee only elected to submit only the general negligence form of the cause of action did not require reversal. • there was legally sufficient evidence on all of the theories of damages awarded and noted that the large damage award for future earning capacity was within the range provided by expert testimony.