Recently, the Supreme Court of Texas issued its opinion in a workers’ compensation appeal, addressing whether a sheriff who died in his patrol car was entitled to benefits. The deputy’s widow filed the lawsuit after her husband died when a wheel from another car came loose and smashed through the man’s patrol car windshield.
The deputy’s wife presented evidence that at the time of his death, the man was a sergeant with the El Paso Sheriff’s Department. On the night of the accident, the man was working an extra-duty assignment for the University of Texas. The sheriff’s employment policy defines this type of work as “secondary employment, which the employee may use actual law enforcement powers”. Generally, the department does not allow employees to use their patrol cars for off-duty work; however, they may be used for extra-duty work with approval. After the man’s death, his wife filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, which the county denied. The county argued that the man was not within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the collision.
Under Texas law, courts have held that questions regarding whether an officer is off duty does not necessarily determine whether their behavior was within the scope of their employment. It is especially nebulous because peace officers are always officers, even while they are off-duty. Plaintiffs in these cases must meet two main criteria to establish that their activity was within the “course and scope of employment”, the activity must: