Texas Appeals Court Holds that Neither Widow Nor Workers’ Compensation Insurer is Entitled to Summary Judgment in Death Benefits Case Arising From Accident in Truck Supplied by Employer

When a person is injured or killed during an automobile accident, the most obvious form of legal redress is a negligence action against the at-fault driver. However, an east Texas auto accident lawsuit may not be the only remedy in some cases – or it may not be a remedy at all.

Take, for example, the case of a person who is hurt or killed while on the job. In such a situation, the injured individual (or his or her family, if it is a fatal accident) may also opt to file a workers’ compensation claim. If a third party claim against a negligent motorist is ultimately successful, the workers’ compensation insurer may be entitled to subrogation for monies paid out, but, in the meantime, the family may receive disability or death benefits that would otherwise be unavailable.

A workers’ compensation claim might be the only option in some such cases, however, especially if the accident was a single vehicle accident or if the employee was clearly at fault in the wreck (and thus unable to bring a third-party claim against another driver).

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was the widow of a man who worked as a gauger and lease operator on a remote, rural gas lease located on a large piece of fenced ranchland. He was killed in a motor vehicle accident while driving to the ranch one morning from his home. At the time of the accident, he was driving a truck provided by his employer (the employer also paid for work-related fuel expenses).

The widow sought workers’ compensation benefits from the defendant insurance company for her husband’s death. The Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers’ Compensation appeals panel upheld a hearing officer’s decision denying the widow’s claim on the basis that her husband was not acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The widow sought further review from the district court, which granted summary judgment in her favor. The insurance company appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

Phrasing the sole issue on appeal as “whether the truck the husband was driving at the time of the accident was gratuitously furnished by the employer, thus rendering the husband outside the course and scope of his employment,” the Court of Appeals of Texas reversed the district court’s granting of summary judgment to the widow and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

According to the court, the evidence presented by the parties in their competing motions for summary judgment raised genuine issues of material fact as to whether the husband’s travel at the time of the accident originated in his employer’s business or was merely the general “travel to and from work” in which all workers must engage (and which does not trigger workers’ compensation liability in the event of an accident). In the court’s view, neither party was entitled to summary judgment in the case at bar because the widow raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the truck was an integral part of her husband’s employment contract and the employer raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the truck was merely gratuitously provided as an accommodation.

Although it was not clear from the appellate court’s opinion, it appears that the accident that claimed the worker’s life may have been either a one-car accident or an accident in which it was unlikely that the worker’s family could pursue a third-party claim against another individual. If this is the case, the only widow’s only possible monetary recovery may be through a judgment in her favor on the workers’ compensation claim on remand to the trial court.

Hire an East Texas Car Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been hurt in an on-the-job car accident, you need legal advice as you navigate the claims process. To schedule an appointment with an experienced auto accident attorney, call Earl Drott Law at 903-531-9300. We handle claims throughout Tyler, Smith County, and east Texas.