Originally published by TEXAS LAWYER

In the United States there are laws and regulations in place that protect hard working citizens from dangers they may be subject to in the workplace. While laws and regulations differ across the nation, decisions made by top tier courts in one state can drastically influence those in others. Due to the fact that accidents occur in the workplace on a daily basis, workers that engage in dangerous labor, especially those operating on American motorways, are only protected by the extent of the law.

Recently, a ruling was made on June 12 by the Texas Supreme Court in the MO-VAC Service v. Estate of Escobedo, which arguably sets a dangerous precedent that could enable employers to use Section 408.001(b) of Title 5 of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act to potentially target and exploit workers that are unmarried and do not have children.

On May 30, 2012, Fabian Escobedo, an experienced oil field liquid hauler at MO-VAC Service Co. in Dilly, died in a fatal accident when his 2007 Mac truck and 1985 white and red Reynolds tank trailer veered off the road, struck a pole and flipped over. Escobedo suffered significant injury, sustaining trauma to his torso and ultimately died of positional asphyxiation. After a thorough investigation, the filed complaint stated he was overworked, “extremely tired and exhausted,” resulting in him falling asleep at the wheel and losing control of the truck and its cargo (https://casetext.com/case/escobedo-v-mo-vac-serv-co).

Testimony by a managerial colleague, Urbano Garza, affirmed that their employer, MO-VAC Service Co., repeatedly violated hours-of-service regulations despite the known risk of overworking drivers and technicians. In doing so, MO-VAC policy required its drivers to keep up with the high demands of the booming oil industry, even requiring them to falsify time sheets and work significant overtime to keep up with demands for quick and efficient deliveries. According to Garza, MO-VAC drivers were pushed to work up to 100 hours per week, logging anywhere between 19-24 hours per shift (https://casetext.com/case/escobedo-v-mo-vac-serv-co).

After Escobedo’s death, his parents and sister filed a wrongful death claim against MO-VAC Service Co. in a district court, citing the Texas Survival Statute (TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 71.021). The court ruled in favor of MO-VAC due to the fact that Texas law forbids parents or immediate family to file such suits, which is reserved for spouses or direct descendants of the deceased. As a result, the estate of Escobedo challenged the ruling in the Court of Appeals in the 13th District of Texas, which eventually reversed the decision, allowing the case to be heard in the Texas Supreme Court.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of MO-VAC, citing that under Texas law, a trucker’s family can only receive workers’ compensation and does not have the right to sue the deceased’s employer for damages, after finding no intent or direct involvement by MO-VAC in the fatal accident. Since Escobedo’s parents and sisters constitute the plaintiffs in the case, the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act directly disqualifies them from seeking damages in a wrongful death suit.

The Texas Workers’ Compensation Act was established in 1913 and outlines the parameters in which employers are entitled to compensate any laborer that suffers an injury or death while under contract. The Texas Supreme Court intervened just a few years after its ratification, adding important provisions that acknowledge intentional injury, where employers are held directly accountable for any known and adverse consequences to the well-being of their labor force (https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/LA/htm/LA.401.htm).

Today, this act is considered an “exclusive form of remedy” (https://landline.media/texas-supreme-court-rules-on-workers-compensation-wrongful-death-case/) where plaintiffs cannot file both workers’ compensation and accidental injury lawsuits. Only if an employer’s involvement signifying intent for the injury is proved in court, can workers’ compensation and litigation can be pursued. In the case at hand, the Texas Supreme Court acknowledged MO-VAC’s corporate policy that encouraged its drivers to work long hours and the direct danger it caused to its employees.

However, the decision implies that being overworked in an unsafe job environment is insufficient in demonstrating that an employer is negligent and implicit in injuries sustained. As a direct response, Justice Eva Guzman cited problematic sections in the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act through her written opinion that called on the Texas Legislature to immediately address this issue and implement quick and swift change. Guzman called for a better protection of workers and to ensure that similar cases yield better results for families that are negatively affected by accidents in the workplace (https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2020/18-0852-0.html).

“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,” Guzman wrote. “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.” (https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2020/18-0852-0.html)

This decision is potentially dangerous due to the direct ramifications it can have to all drivers and haulers operating in Texas, especially considering the hazardous working conditions embedded in working on the road. Moreover, the ruling jeopardizes the safety of other motorists. Additionally, the decision provides protection to companies, directly withholding the financial support to families in light of a tragedy. Unfortunately, this legal precedent can create a dual effect: motivating other trucking companies to endorse similarly dangerous policies and explicitly enable them to continue to overwork drivers who are not married or do not have children. The consequences are overreaching, as they are directly applicable to almost all workers across many different labor sectors.

If used in accordance with state and federal law, workers’ compensation does provide financial assistance to families in light of tragedy. Specifically, damages paid through workers’ compensation and wrongful death in Texas should not be reserved for spouses and descendants, but made available to parents, siblings and immediate family. The case at hand incentivizes employers to not extend sufficient protection to workers, rendering the law ineffective and void of legal consequences for those that engage in such negligent conduct. Until this issue is addressed and mended by the Texas Legislature, workers are not fully protected and justice cannot be served.

Brett Cain is a trial lawyer who has tried over 50 jury trials and has resolved hundreds more disputes by mediation since 2006. He is the owner of Cain Firm, a partner of The Law Center, a national network of top law firms with decades of experience in advocating for those who have suffered from personal injury, asbestos-related diseases, motor vehicle accidents and more. Cain is proud to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves, and, as a result, has recovered millions of dollars for clients after insurance companies initially wouldn’t pay.