The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that a family cannot sue a trucking company after a fatal crash caused by fatigue.
On June 12, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the family of truck driver Fabian Escobedo could not sue Mo-Vac Service Co. Inc for wrongful death because of insufficient evidence that the trucking company knew that the driver’s fatigue would lead to his demise. Mo-Vac provides transportation and warehousing services for the oil patch in Texas.
Per the court’s ruling, Escobedo’s family is only eligible for Workers Compensation damages.
Escobedo died while en route to the company facility in Dilley, Texas, on May 30, 2012, after his truck ran off the road when he fell asleep behind the wheel. His truck struck a pole and rolled over. Escobedo ultimately perished due to positional asphyxiation.
Testimony from Escobedo’s co-workers appearing in court documents indicates that Mo-Vac required drivers to alter their log books to hide the fact that they were violating Hours of Service requirements.
From court documents citing the testimony of terminal manager Urbano Garza:
With regard to the first element, Urbano Garza’s affidavit testimony paints a disturbing picture that Mo-Vac was objectively aware that forcing its drivers to work long, grueling hours created an “extreme risk” that one of its drivers would suffer severe injury or even death in the course and scope of employment. Mr. Garza provided uncontroverted testimony that Mo-Vac instructed its drivers to falsify their driving records. In other words, Mo-Vac coerced workers who were under economic duress to flat-out lie. The falsified records allowed Mo-Vac’s drivers to work longer hours in direct violation of government-imposed safety rules enacted to protect not only Mo-Vac’s drivers, but everyone using a public roadway. And even more alarming, Mo-Vac specifically trained its drivers to alter their driving logs to create the appearance of compliance with legally mandated safety standards. Mr. Garza estimated that falsification of Mo-Vac’s driving logs resulted in drivers working “19 to 24 hours straight–day after day.”
And strikingly, the record indicates that in the eight days leading up to his death, Fabian Escobedo worked a total of 137 hours, averaging more than 17 hours of work per day. Cumulatively, this evidence objectively establishes Mo-Vac knew that requiring its drivers to operate semi-trucks with limited sleep—and in direct violation of safety standards—created “an extreme degree of risk.”
Though the Texas Supreme Court admitted that there was significant evidence that Mo-Vac coerced drivers to violate HOS rules and drive fatigued, the court ruled that as a participant in the Texas workers compensation system, the family’s lawsuit “can succeed only by proving that Mo-Vac intentionally caused Escobedo’s accident in the sense that it believed the accident was ‘substantially certain to result’ from his being overworked.”
The court ultimately ruled that the lawsuit did not provide sufficient evidence that “Mo-Vac believed that Escobedo’s accident was substantially certain” and that the company was protected by the exclusive remedy component of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act.
“The Act’s no-fault guarantee offers peace of mind to employees, but in exchange, subscribing employers reap a substantial benefit: the Act bars employees from seeking tort remedies by making workers compensation benefits the exclusive remedy for death or injury sustained in the course and scope of employment … By limiting an injured employee’s right to bring a cause of action against an employer in exchange for guaranteed benefits, the Legislature struck a carefully considered balance: assured compensation for workplace injuries without the uncertainty and expense of litigating responsibility. But because the Act focuses on injuries that are broadly categorized as “accidental,” we have long recognized that the Texas Constitution prohibits application of the exclusive-remedy bar to intentional injuries,” Justice Eva Guzman writes.
Further, the suit was filed by Escobedo’s parents and sister. Only a spouse or legal heirs are eligible to recover exemplary damages from an intentionally caused incident under current Workers’ Compensation laws.
Justice Guzman concurred with the court’s findings but said that the case should prompt lawmakers to make a change.
“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,” she said.