Employee’s slip and fall injury lawsuit leads to clarification of premises liability law in Texas.
The Supreme Court of Texas recently ruled that employees who work for one of the approximately 144,000 Texas businesses that do not have worker’s compensation insurance cannot seek compensation if they are injured due to a known premises defect. On the surface, this seems like a big loss for Texas workers, but it actually may lead to larger payouts in the future.
Austin v. Kroger
In the case at bar, Randy Austin, a maintenance employee working for a Kroger supermarket in Mesquite, Texas slipped and fell while mopping a restroom floor.
There was an oil spill in a restroom and the Kroger handbook recommended using a product called “Spill Magic.” The product was not available, so Austin simply mopped the floor. While mopping, Austin fell, fracturing his femur and dislocating his hip. After nine months in the hospital, his left leg was 2 inches shorter than his right.
Austin sued in civil court, alleging that Kroger was grossly negligent and that they failed to provide him with the Spill Magic system. Kroger removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment. A judge granted their motion for summary judgment and the case was dismissed. Randy Austin then appealed. The Fifth Circuit heard Austin’s appeal and affirmed the lower court’s ruling on Austin’s negligence claim, but reversed the ruling on his claim that Kroger failed to provide Magic Spill.
In their opinion, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged ambiguity in Texas’s premises liability law.
What is premises liability?
Premises liability refers to a landowner’s duty to provide a safe environment to persons who may be on their property. Different types of visitors require different levels of safety. For example, an employer generally has a duty to provide a safe workplace to employees working on the premises. Patrons of a store are usually considered invitees and a landowner has a duty of care owed to them as well.
Results of the lawsuit.
The Fifth Circuit thought that the “nature and scope” of an employer’s duty to provide employees with a safe workplace was unclear under Texas law in cases where an employee is aware of the hazard. That is because, under Texas law, an employee generally cannot recover against an employer that does not subscribe to worker’s compensation insurance for an injury caused by a premises defect of which the person was aware, but his job duties require him to fix the defect in question. Ordinarily, warnings of concealed dangers will satisfy an employer’s duty to maintain a safe workplace. However, the Fifth Circuit asked for clarification from the Texas Supreme Court, and their opinion offers a double edged sword for injured workers.
The Texas Supreme Court found that although Texas employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace, an employee’s awareness of the defect eliminates an employer’s liability.
But there is a caveat that could work in plaintiffs’ favor. The Supreme Court also stated that employees can recover damages under normal negligence law if an employer failed to provide proper equipment, training, or supervision that could have prevented an injury. Such cases can result in large payouts and they have not been available to Texas workers until now.
For Austin, this means that he still has a chance to receive money damages from Kroger, as long as he can prove that Kroger failed to provide proper equipment, training, or supervision. A winning case would likely net him more damages than if he had won a suit under a premises liability claim.
Regarding the availability of an additional claim for negligence, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd wrote:
“As Austin’s employer, Kroger owed Austin duties in addition to its premises-liability duty and its duty not to engage in negligent activities, including the duty to provide Austin with necessary instrumentalities.”
So while this may be a blow on the surface, new litigation will determine whether or not this decision truly hurt employee who, while working for companies without worker’s compensation insurance, are injured while performing their job duties.
If you’ve been injured on the job, we ask that you call us at (214) 651-6100 and tell us about your accident. There’s no cost to discuss your legal options, and the attorneys at Rasansky Law Firm are available 24 hours a day to take your call.