The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified that the Workers’ Compensation Act’s intentional-injury exception applies only to situations where the employer purposefully causes injury or when the employer believes “that its actions are substantially certain to result in a particular injury to a particular employee, not merely highly likely to increase overall risks to employees in the workplace.”
In Mo-Vac Service Co. v. Escobedo, the Court was confronted with a situation where the employer, a trucking and warehousing company servicing the Texas oil patch, employed Mr. Escobedo, who hauled liquids to and from drilling sites in an eighteen-wheel tanker truck. Mr. Escobedo died during the course of his employment when his rig ran off the highway and rolled over.
His parents contended that Mr. Escobedo fell asleep at the wheel due to fatigue triggered by the employer’s excessively long work schedule. They characterized this behavior as intentionally causing Mr. Escobedo’s death, alleging that it was “substantially certain” (if not inevitable) that his accident would result from severe and systematic overwork. They bolstered this allegation with evidence they claimed demonstrated that the employer encouraged drivers like Mr. Escobedo to falsify driving logs to avoid federal limits governing duration of shift driving time.
The trial court upheld the employer’s position that the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy for the claims in the lawsuit. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that there was a fact issue on whether the employer intentionally caused Mr. Escobedo’s death, implicating the “substantial certainty” definition of “intent.”
Supreme Court Analysis of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act’s “Intentional-Injury” Exception
The Supreme Court began its discussion in Mo-Vac by reaching back to the adoption of the Act in 1913 and to the Court’s judicially crafted exception for “intentional” acts. Based on the Court’s previous holdings, the Court explained that “intent” included two types of conduct: purposeful intent and actions taken despite the subjective belief that an injury or death was substantially certain to occur. The Mo-Vac case prompted the Court to explore the ingredients and limits of “substantial certainty.”
In doing so, the Court decided that the “substantially certain” aspect of the intentional-injury exception does not encompass employer actions that may increase overall workplace risks but, rather, applies only to situations where the employer subjectively believes its actions are substantially certain to cause a particular injury to a particular employee.
The Court premised this result upon the distinction between negligent injury, or even grossly negligent injury, and intentional injury. As the Court explained, “intentional injury” requires an employer’s specific intent to inflict injury. Thus, the Court concluded that the intentional failure to furnish a safe place to work does not rise to the level of intentional injury except when the employer subjectively believes that injury to a particular employee from a particular risk is substantially certain to occur.
The Court explained that this rigorous definition is necessary to prevent the intentional-injury exception from “devolving into a standard of exceptionally egregious gross negligence.” Under the clarified standard, the Court determined that evidence the employer required its drivers to work long hours to make more profit did not indicate that the employer intended that a driver be killed on the job. In short, the evidence did not demonstrate that the employer intended Mr. Escobedo’s death or that the employer was substantially certain that Mr. Escobedo’s grueling schedule would cause his death.
The Supreme Court of Texas’ decision in Mo-Vac Service Co. v. Escobedo provides much-needed guidance regarding the “substantial certainty” aspect of the intentional-injury exception to the exclusive-remedy provision of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act. Its decision clarifies that an employer is “substantially certain” that injury will result only when the employer subjectively believes its actions will cause particular injury to a particular employee. In so doing, the Court made clear that evidence an employer engaged in actions that were “highly likely” to increase overall workplace risks is insufficient to satisfy the requirements of the exception.
Jennifer Caughey is a former Justice on Texas’s First Court of Appeals and current chair of Jackson Walker’s appellate section. She handles high-stakes commercial litigation, and she has particular expertise in issues involving statutory and contractual interpretation, constitutional law, healthcare, insurance, energy, administrative law, and professional liability. Since returning to private practice, she has represented clients in diverse state court matters across Texas, including at the Texas Supreme Court, in various Texas Courts of Appeals, and in trial courts (at jury and bench trials and otherwise). She has also represented clients in federal courts, including in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, and in federal district courts.
Danica Milios is a litigator with Jackson Walker’s appellate practice group with over 20 years of appellate experience. Danica came to Jackson Walker after 17 years at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, where she began her career as a trial lawyer before ultimately moving to an appellate practice in the Office of the Solicitor General. Since moving into private practice, Danica has handled appeals in a diverse range of areas, including arbitration awards, bill of review procedure, business disparagement, tortious interference with contracts, oil and gas matters, free exercise of speech and religion, wrongful death, and the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act.
Lionel M. Schooler is a management-side employment lawyer and recognized authority on employment law, federal appellate practice, and arbitration. Lonnie’s employment practice focuses on counseling clients and litigating, on a nationwide basis, claims under all employment laws, workers’ compensation coverage issues, wage and hour claims, and investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Texas Workforce Commission. Lonnie is also experienced as an arbitrator on the Commercial and Employment Panels of the American Arbitration Association and as an advocate.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.