Texas Supreme Court Finds No Intent in Overworked Trucker Case, Urges Change in LawJuly 22, 2020
The ruling bars a family from pursuing a survival action, but it may close a loophole in the law.
The family of an oil truck driver who was killed in a job-related wreck is not legally permitted to pursue a survival action against the motor carrier that employed him. Instead, the victim’s parents and sister are limited to workers’ compensation, according to a recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.
While the ruling is not the justice the family was hoping for, it could lead to major changes in Texas laws, closing a loophole that has been letting some employers get away with illegal and deadly practices.
Background: Fatal Oil Hauler Truck Accident Kills Driver
The incident at the heart of this case is a deadly wreck that occurred on May 30, 2012. It involved a 2007 Mack truck owned and operated by Mo-Vac Service Company, Inc. Mo-Vac is a motor carrier operating within the oil and gas sector.
The driver, an oil field liquid hauler, reportedly fell asleep or lost control of the truck right before the crash happened. That caused him to swerve offroad into a grassy shoulder area where he hit a delineator pole and rolled over.
While the driver suffered torso trauma and many other serious injuries, his death was ultimately attributed to positional asphyxiation, suffocation due posture that fatally impairs breathing.
Family Files Wrongful Death Case Against Mo-Vac
The driver’s parents and sister filed a wrongful death case and survival action against Mo-Vac (Case No. C-5132-14-D), alleging that the driver was “extremely tired and exhausted” at the time of the fatal oil hauler crash. In the complaint, the plaintiffs also contended that:
- Management pushed drivers to work excessive hours in violation of HOS rules: A terminal manager for Mo-Vac testified that the company required drivers to work an illegal number of hours and falsify their logbooks. This witness also said that drivers were working at least 100 hours per week and 19 to 24 hours straight per day. Supervisors were telling drivers, “don’t get killed out there” because “the oil fields of West Texas and South Texas were booming” and the company “could not keep up with demand for drivers.”
- The driver suffered before his death: According to the complaint, the decedent didn’t die upon impact, and he knew the crash was going to happen. Because the death was due to asphyxiation from how the crash left the driver, the plaintiffs argue that their loved one suffered before his death. They also cite evidence of evasive actions the driver took before the wreck, as well as his broken ribs and contusions, as signs of “conscious pain and suffering.”
- Mo-Vac’s actions that contributed to the wreck were intentional: The plaintiffs also contend that the company knowingly put the driver in a situation that it “acknowledged was substantially certain to injure or kill.” They also argued that Mo-Vac had created conditions that made it impossible for the company to not realize that, eventually, serious accidents would happen.
Mo-Vac moved to dismiss the case. While the trial court denied Mo-Vac’s first motion for dismissal, the court granted the motion for reconsideration, as well as the motion for no-evidence summary judgment filed with it.
With this ruling, the trial court agreed with Mo-Vac that:
- There was no evidence that the deceased driver had experienced any “conscious pain and suffering.”
- The company did not play an intentional role in causing the wreck and the death.
Appeal Filed in Overworked Trucker Case
The plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision, filing their case with the 13th Court of Appeals (Primitivo Escobedo, et al v. Mo-Vac, Case No. 13-16-00435-CV). On July 27, 2018, the Court:
- Upheld part of the lower court’s decision: The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the family did not have the standing to file a wrongful death claim against Mo-Vac.
- Overturned another part of the lower court’s decision: Here, the court disagreed with the lower court, saying that the family did have the right to pursue a survival action against Mo-Vac. The court explained that “a question of fact remains regarding whether [the driver] suffered conscious pain and suffering” and that the plaintiffs had “brought forth more than a mere scintilla of probative evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact” regarding intent.
With this decision, the appellate court remanded the case back to the trial court “for further proceedings consistent with this memorandum opinion.” Before that could happen, however, Mo-Vac filed an appeal.
Case Goes to the Texas High Court
On Sept. 10, 2018, Mo-Vac filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court. The case (Mo-Vac Service Co. Inc. v. Primitivo Escobedo et al., Case No. 18-0852) proceeded to oral arguments on Feb. 26, 2020.
The issue at stake was whether Mo-Vac’s role in causing the deadly wreck qualified as either:
- Gross negligence: Mo-Vac claimed gross negligence, which would bar the family from proceeding with legal action outside of the workers’ compensation system. The company says that, while it may have acted with gross negligence, it did not intend to create a situation that would kill the decedent. They also say there was no way to know the driver would be killed on that particular day. Importantly, only an heir or a spouse of a decedent (not a parent or sibling) can file this type of claim against an employer, according to Texas workers’ compensation statutes.
- Intent: The family alleged intent, which would let their survival action against Mo-Vac move forward. The intent came with the company forcing drivers to engage in potentially deadly and illegal actions, the plaintiffs say. They point to the witness testimony in the original complaint to back this up.
Ultimately, the high court ruled in favor of Mo-Vac, finding that, “the record bears no evidence that Mo-Vac intended a driver be killed on the job or that Escobedo’s crash due to his grueling schedule was substantially certain.”
Therefore, by law, the victim’s parents and sister are not permitted to pursue a survival action against Mo-Vac. They can only seek compensation via Texas workers’ compensation laws.
Those laws, however, may not serve justice or public safety, according to Justice Eva Guzman.
In fact, in an opinion issued on June 12, 2020, Justice Guzman explained that:
A hardworking Texan died alone on the side of a highway in a foreseeable accident that likely would not have occurred but for his employer’s intentional disregard of laws enacted to protect workers and the public. Though precedent compels me to concur in the Court’s conclusion that the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy for the Escobedo family’s heart-wrenching loss, I write separately to urge the Legislature to align the Act with Texas’s wrongful-death statute by extending the Act’s exemplary-damages exception to parents who have lost a child, like the Escobedo family… the exemplary-damages remedy in section408.001(b) is unavailable not because the alleged conduct does not rise to the level of gross negligence but because Fabian had no wife or child to grieve him.
She concluded with a call to action for Texas legislators:
In a perfect world, employers would do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that requires laws, regulations, and disincentives to help ensure employers don’t do the wrong thing. Without meaningful consequences for engaging in prohibited conduct, laws are not effective. On that score, the Workers’ Compensation Act has a loophole that unwittingly permits employers to engage, with impunity, in unsafe practices. I believe the tragic circumstances presented here make a strong case for aligning the Workers’ Compensation Act with the Wrongful Death Act, and I call on the Legislature to do so.