Texas Supreme Court Clarifies Plaintiff's Burden for Establishing Vicarious Liability
In Painter v. Amerimex Drilling I Ltd., No. 16-0120, issued April 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of Texas in a 6-to-2 majority opinion addressed the issue of employer-employee vicarious liability, specifically in the context of an employee driving to and from the worksite.
Amerimex was hired to drill oil-and-gas wells in West Texas via a contract that provided Amerimex's drillers would receive a bonus payment for transporting a crew to the worksite. Amerimex did not provide any restrictions on the route the driller took when transporting the crew. Amerimex also paid for employee bunkhouses 30 miles from the worksite.
Amerimex's driller was driving a crew to the bunkhouse following a work shift when he allegedly caused a motor-vehicle accident that resulted in several persons being injured, including two fatalities. The injured parties sued Amerimex, alleging Amerimex was vicariously liable for the driller's negligence.
Amerimex filed a motion for summary judgment arguing the plaintiffs' vicarious-liability claim failed because Amerimex had no control over its driller at the time of the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment. The court of appeals affirmed, explaining that, for vicarious liability to apply, "Amerimex must undertake some control as with the route or the means of transport, which might correspondingly reflect on the risk of the accident itself."
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court. The Court recognized that, to prove vicarious liability, a "plaintiff must show that, at the time of the negligent conduct, the worker (1) was an employee and (2) was acting in the course and scope of his employment." The Court noted there was inconsistency in the case law regarding how an employer's "right to control" fits into a vicarious-liability analysis-i.e., does a plaintiff, after proving an employer-employee relationship exists, have to further prove the employer had a right to control the employee's specific task at the time of the accident as part of the "course and scope" element?
The Court answered in the negative, holding as a general rule that once an employer-employee relationship is established, it is presumed the employer had a right to control the employee as long as the employee was acting in the course of scope of employment at the time of the accident. This presumption exists regardless of whether the employer actually chose to exercise control over the employee at the time of the accident. The Court did note, however, that when the worker is an independent contractor, the plaintiff does have to prove that the employer had a right to control the specific task the worker was performing at the time of the accident in order to establish vicarious liability.
Applying this law to the facts of the case, the Court stated that the first element was met because the driller was Amerimex's employee-there was no argument that the driller was actually an independent contractor.
Turning to the "course and scope" element, the Court rejected the court of appeals' focus on whether Amerimex exercised control over the driller at the time of the accident; because an employer-employee relationship existed, control was presumed regardless of whether Amerimex actually controlled the route taken, or the type of vehicle driven, by the driller. The proper inquiry is whether "the employee was performing the tasks generally assigned to him in furtherance of the employer's business" at the time of the accident.
The Court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because there was evidence that the driller was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The driller had a specific job duty to transport a crew to and from the worksite, which was in furtherance of Amerimex's business because it ensured a crew arrived at work and was not stranded at the end of a shift.
The Court recognized the "coming and going" rule "under which an employee is generally not liable for the acts of its employees while traveling to and from work," but held an exception to the rule applies when the "travel involves the performance of regular or specifically assigned duties for the benefit of the employer." Because Amerimex's driller's job duties included transporting a crew to and from the worksite, and there was no evidence he was deviating from these duties at the time of the accident, there was evidence supporting that the exception to the general "coming and going" rule applied.
The Court's opinion leaves substantial room for arguing that an employee driver was not acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of an accident. The "coming and going" rule will apply to most situations because most employees in Texas do not have any specific job duties related to their traveling to and from work. Moreover, the Court reiterated that an employee is not acting within the course and scope of employment when the employee deviates from his specific job duties for his own purposes, even when that deviation is approved by the employer.
Access the full opinion here.