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Limits of Vicarious Liability in Texas

farm-field-views-1200640In Painter v. Sandridge Energy, Inc., a Texas appellate court considered the death of two oil field employees and injuries to a third oil field employee. The workers were doing drilling on behalf of their employer, Amerimex. Amerimex was hired by Sandridge, which had a lease to drill wells at a ranch. The contract described Amerimex as an independent contractor but specified that the crew worked under Sandridge’s control, supervision, and direction. Sandridge was obligated to pay bonuses to the Amerimex employees so that they wouldn’t be hired away by other drillers. Sandridge had an on-site supervisor who stayed in a trailer.

The accident happened after the workers’ shift while they were driving to a bunkhouse 30-40 miles away owned by Amerimex. There was no requirement that the workers live in the bunkhouse or ride with their crew leader to and from the drilling site, but since the crew leader was the only one with a car, they did drive to and from the bunkhouse with him every day. The crew worked in shifts of seven days on and seven days off. While driving, the crew leader ran into the back of another car. Two of the employees were killed, and another was injured. Later, the crew leader testified that nobody at Sandridge gave him any driving instructions.

The decedents’ relatives and the surviving employee sued the other driver in the crash, Amerimex, and Sandridge, the owner of the oil and gas lease. Their petition alleged that Sandridge was responsible for the crew leader’s actions because it gave a financial incentive to the crew leader to transport them in his car. They alternatively alleged the crew leader was the agent of Sandridge due to a transportation bonus, or that he was a “borrowed servant” of Sandridge.

Sandridge filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that the crew leader wasn’t its employee, it had no control over the crew leader at the time of the car accident, and it couldn’t be held liable for an independent contractor’s employee. The trial court granted the motion but did not specify the grounds upon which it had relied.

The plaintiffs appealed. They argued there were material factual issues about whether the drilling contract gave Sandridge a right of control over the crew leader and whether it had controlled transportation by providing a driving bonus arrangement. They also argued that there was a material factual issue as to whether the crew leader acted as a Sandridge employee at the time of the car accident. Alternatively, they argued there was evidence he was a borrowed servant.

The appellate court explained that drilling is a complex enterprise and that when injuries happen, it can be difficult to determine who is at fault and who had the right to control. In Texas, if there is no relationship between parties giving rise to control, one party isn’t under a legal duty to control the other, even if it can from a practical standpoint. The court explained that there were areas in which Sandridge had specific control over the drilling work, and that even though Amerimex was described as an independent contractor in the contract, certain terms reflected the opposite. However, in order to matter for purposes of a personal injury lawsuit, the control must relate to the injury-producing activity to matter.

In this case, the court found that there was no evidence Sandridge kept control over how workers were transported to and from the work site. Merely paying Amerimex money to pay the crew leader a bonus for transporting the crew didn’t equal a right to control. Moreover, Sandridge hadn’t actually controlled worker transportation. For the same reason, the appellate court found that there wasn’t evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claim that the crew leader was a Sandridge employee.

The appellate court also explained that the employee of one employer can become the borrowed servant of another. The test is whether the other employer has the right to direct or control an employee with regard to the details of a particular type of work. However, Sandridge didn’t have control over how the crew leader transported the Amerimex employees. Accordingly, the lower court’s grant of summary judgment was affirmed.

Trying to hold a corporation responsible for an employee’s or coworker’s negligence can be challenging, particularly in connection with multi-employer sites. If you’re hurt or a loved one is killed in a work-related car accident, the experienced San Antonio personal injury attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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