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Wrongful Death as a Result of a Texas Fistfight

In a recent Texas Supreme Court decision, the Court considered a wrongful death that arose from a fistfight. Two cashiers, one of them J.R., worked at a Houston convenience store owned by a gas corporation. Two others also worked there, along with a manager. J.R.’s father had previously worked there, but he had moved on to working as a tollbooth attendant. He’d asked the manager to hire his son. The other cashier also knew the father, who drove him to and from work.

J.R. believed everyone got along until someone asked him if he was having a sexual affair with another man who worked there. J.R. felt harassed and complained. While J.R. was working at the convenience store alone, two customers complained that there was an “out of order” sign on the men’s restroom door. J.R. checked and found that the restroom wasn’t out of order, and he believed that the guy who’d harassed him before was doing it again. He complained about the coworker to his father, who called and told the coworker to stop harassing his son.

On another day when the father took him to work, the coworker came in and began threatening J.R. Things calmed down for the rest of the day, but later the coworker attacked the father and beat him up. The fight ended, but the father couldn’t breathe and had to be taken to the ER. The ER physicians misinterpreted a dark space on the X-ray and found that the left lung had filled with fluid. They tried multiple times to put in a chest tube to drain away the fluid. Eventually, the father’s condition went downhill, and sepsis resulted. He died for multiple reasons, but among the reasons was probably sepsis-caused organ failure.

The father’s family sued the company for wrongful death and survival damages. The company tried to designate the ER doctor as the responsible third party, but the trial court declined. The ER doctor could only be held liable for willful and wanton negligence, and there was no evidence of that.

The family claimed that the company was responsible for the coworker’s actions and that it was negligent in supervising the coworker and failing to make any efforts to stop the fight from happening. The jury didn’t find that the coworker was in the scope of employment during the fight and precluded the company from being vicariously liable. It found that the company’s negligent supervision of employees, along with the son and father’s negligence, caused the death. Responsibility was mostly apportioned to the company, but 15% was apportioned to the son, and 10% was apportioned to the father.

The company appealed, arguing that it couldn’t be liable because it owed no duty to control the coworker. The appellate court rejected these arguments of non-liability, but it found that the ER doctor should be held to the same standard of care as other doctors, and responsibility could be apportioned to him, although willful or wanton negligence would need to be proved.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The family argued that the judgment should have been affirmed. The Court agreed with the company. They explained that under Section 317, an employer owes a duty to control an employee acting outside the scope of employment to stop harm when the actions happen on the employer’s property, the employer knows or should know it can control the employee, and the employer knows or should know about the necessity and opportunity to exercise that control.

In this case, it found that any duty an employer might have wouldn’t extend to minor disagreements. There was nothing in the facts leading up to the fight to suggest the minor disagreement would result in such a serious injury as death. Judgment was rendered for the company.

If a loved one dies as a result of negligence or a defective product, the San Antonio wrongful death attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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