The Los Compadres case, decided by the Supreme Court of TX (SCOTX), addresses Chapter 95 of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code. This important statute sets the minimum criteria that must be met to hold a property owner liable for injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee performing construction work on the property owner’s premises. The contractor’s injured employee must show that the property owner exercised or retained some control over the work being performed by the contractor, had actual knowledge of the condition that caused the employee to be injured, and failed to provide adequate warning. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 95.003. In this case SCOTX found that sufficient evidence supported the jury award against the property owner who failed to adequately warn its contractor’s employees who sustained electrical shock injuries caused by a live power line.  Los Compadres Pescadores, L.L.C. v. Valdez, 622 S.W.3d 771, 781 (Tex. 2021), reh’g denied (June 11, 2021).

Background and Analysis. Property owner, Los Compadres Pescadores, LLC, employed Torres to act as its project manager to build a 4-unit condominium complex. Los Compadres hired independent contractor, Luis Paredes, Jr. d/b/a Paredes Power Drilling, to construct the pilings that had to be buried deep into the ground. AEP TX Central Co. owned the high-voltage power line that hung over the back part of Los Compadres’s property.

Torres initially told Paredes that he would contact AEP to do something about the power line.  Torres instructed Paredes to start working on the front part of the property. Paredes warned his crew to stay away from the power line. On the second day of construction, Torres told Paredes that the power line was still energized. On the third day, Torres told Paredes that the power line would not be de-energized but to continue drilling to install the pilings. As Paredes and two of his crew members were lifting rebar to place it into concrete, one end of the rebar contacted the live power line.

The electricity shot down the rebar, threw the men off their feet, briefly knocked them unconscious, and caused burns to their hands and feet.

Id at * 778.

As a result, the two crew members  filed a lawsuit including against Paredes. After the jury found in favor of the crew members, the trial court entered judgment based upon the verdict. The judgment was affirmed on appeal. Las Compadres filed a petition for review with SCOTX on grounds which included that the evidence was insufficient, under Chapter 95 of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code, to support the jury’s verdict.

SCOTX agreed with Los Compadres that Chapter 95 applied. As a result, the crew members were required to prove that Los Compadres exercised some control over the work being performed, knew about the dangerous condition created by the power line, and failed to warn the crew members about this dangerous condition.

SCOTX found that there was sufficient evidence to prove this. This evidence included that:

  1. Los Compadres’s employee and superintendent, Torres, hired Paredes to perform the work.
  2. Torres instructed Paredes on the performance of the work.
  3. Torres controlled the work that led to the accident because he initially instructed Paredes to work from the front of the property and later told him to work on back of the property even though Torres knew the power line remained energized.
  4. The dangerous condition was not open and obvious to the two injured crew members because they did not know the line was energized.

Lessons learned. A property owner should make sure that its construction contracts do not contain language giving it the right to control the performance of the work to be performed by its contractors. Further, the property owner’s employees should refrain from instructing contractors on how to perform their construction work. Last but not least, dangerous conditions on the property should be corrected before any construction work begins.

Introduction. Doing business with a governmental entity can be tricky business because of the doctrine of governmental immunity. If this doctrine applies, the governmental entity may escape liability for harm it causes to others. Recently, the City of Carrolton  filed a plea to the jurisdiction claiming that it was immune from a lawsuit filed by Weir Brothers Contracting, LLC for unpaid grading work that amounted to over seven hundred thousand dollars. The Dallas District Court denied the City’s plea because it found that the City was engaged in performing proprietary rather than governmental functions. See City Carrollton v. Weir Bros. Contracting, LLC, No. 05-20-00714-CV, 2021 WL 1084554 (Tex. App.—Dallas Mar. 22, 2021, pet. denied).

Background and analysis. The City published a proposal for the lease or sale of 38 acres. The bid criteria included price, property use, financing, bidder experience and how the proposed project would enhance the McInnis Sports Complex. The City signed a lease agreement with Blue Sky Sports Center of Carrolton, LP.  Under the lease, Blue Sky would lease 30 acres of the property to “operate a multi-use sports, recreational, entertainment, and related service facility.” Id at *1.

On July 13, 2016, the City entered into a contract with AJI to grade a 41.94-acre tract that included the 30 acres leased to Blue Sky. In exchange, AJI would receive approximately 6 acres of the tract. In turn, AJI hired Weir Brothers Contracting, LLC to perform the grading, and, for its part, Weir would receive an interest in the 6 acres. Weir began the grading in February 2017 and in March encountered a capped landfill. The City issued an order to stop work until the problem could be remediated. Subsequently, the City terminated its agreement with AJI on the grounds that AJI failed to complete the grading working within 90 days. A couple of months later the city hired Blue Sky’s general contractor to finish the grading.

On October 20, 2017, Weir submitted an invoice to the City in the amount of $728,270 for work performed. The City refused to pay and terminated its contract with AJI. Weir obtained an assignment of all claims that AJI had against the City. Weir sued the City for breach of contract, quantum meruit, promissory estoppel, and tortious interference with a contract. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction contending it was immune from the lawsuit under the governmental immunity doctrine. The trial court denied the plea and the City appealed.

The Dallas Court of Appeals explained that a municipality like the City exercises its powers through governmental and proprietary roles. Governmental immunity protects a City from suit based on the performance of a governmental function. However, it does not protect the City when performing a proprietary function. Here, the City was performing a proprietary function by engaging in the preparation and leasing of real property for the tenant’s use. The leasing of property is not a function that falls under the statutory definition of a governmental function.

Furthermore, the record shows that the City’s decision to lease the land was a discretionary act conducted on the City’s own behalf primarily for the benefit of its residents.

Id at *5.

Conclusion. The Court of Appeals concluded that the City’s actions were proprietary. Therefore, the City was not protected by the Governmental immunity doctrine.  As can be seen from this case, conducting business with a governmental entity can be risky business. If the Court had found that the governmental immunity doctrine applied, then the City would have been immune from the lawsuit and shielded from liability for payment of the grading work.

Introduction. A couple of years ago this blog discussed the construction defect case,  Pleasant Grove Indep. Sch. Dist. v. FieldTurf USA, Inc., in which the Pleasant Grove Independent School District sued its general contractor, Altech, Inc., and the manufacturer, FieldTurf USA, Inc., in connection with the installation of  a defective artificial turf system as part of in the construction of Pleasant Grove’s new football stadium. 06-19-00022-CV, 2020 WL 1646633, at *1 (Tex. App.—Texarkana Apr. 3, 2020, no pet. h.). The trial court granted  Altech’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Pleasant Grove’s claims against Altech. The case proceeded to trial only on Pleasant Grove’s claims for breach of warranty against FieldTurf, and the jury awarded $175,000 in favor of Pleasant Grove. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment rendered in favor of Altech and remanded the case for a new trial of Pleasant Grove’s breach of warranty/contract claims against both Altech and FieldTurf. The appeal has finally made its way to the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX). This article discusses the decision by SCOTX to reverse the Court of Appeals and uphold the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of Altech.  See FieldTurf USA, Inc. v. Pleasant Grove Indep. Sch. Dist., 642 S.W.3d 829, 830 (Tex.2022).

Background. In 2008, Pleasant Grove retained Altech as its general contractor to build a new high school football stadium with an artificial turf field. Altech’s subcontractor installed the Prestige XM-60 turf system manufactured by FieldTurf. The artificial turf was installed in 2009, and FieldTurf expressly warranted, for 8 years, that if the height of the artificial turf decreased by 50% or more, during normal and ordinary use, FieldTurf would repair or replace the defective turf.

Altech warranted in its contract with Pleasant Grove that its work would be free from defects not “inherent in the quality permitted and that the Work will conform to the requirements of the Contract documents.” Those requirements included that the shock pad would meet the following criteria:

  1. G-Max rating range 80-120, ASTM F355;
  2. G-Max Range 100-140 ASTM F355; and
  3. Field surface G-Max within the above rages for the life of the synthetic turf system warranty.

FieldTurf USA, Inc. v. Pleasant Grove Indep. Sch. Dist., 642 S.W.3d 829, 831-832(Tex. 2022).

In 2014, Pleasant Grove notified FieldTurf of significant problems with the turf and demanded that the turf be replaced under the warranty. FieldTurf offered to perform a “LayMor Scrape” to remove some of the rubber infill at the base of the fibers to expose more of the fibers. Pleasant Grove rejected this offer and filed suit against both Altech and FieldTurf.

Before the case proceeded to trial, both Altech and FieldTurf filed motions for summary judgment with the trial court. Altech requested that the trial court enter a total summary judgment as a matter of law in its favor, and the trial court granted the motion. Field Turf requested the trial to enter a partial summary judgment in its favor on Pleasant Grove’s fraud claims only, and the trial court granted the motion. The case proceeded to jury trial on Pleasant Grove’s breach of warranty claims against FieldTurf. The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $175,000 in Pleasant Grove’s favor. On appeal, the Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Altech and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The parties filed a petition for SCOTX to review  the decision by the Court of Appeals. The primary substantive issue addressed by SCOTX pertained to the Court of Appeals overturning the summary judgment in favor of Altech.

Legal analysis. The basis of Altech’s traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment was that it  “played no role in selecting the allegedly defective turf product—[Pleasant Grove] chose the Prestige XM-60 and approved it as being compliant with the construction specifications—and that Altech made no guarantee or warranty that the product would be free from inherent defects or other defects permitted by the contract documents.” Id at 833.  Pleasant Grove responded that the contract did not exempt Altech from liability for inherent defects and it imposed liability upon Altech for the acts of downstream contractors. Further, the turf of the football field did not conform to the contract documents in that it “failed to maintain a G-Max rating less that 140 through its first eight years.” Id at 833. In support of this, Pleasant Grove attached a report from its expert to its summary judgment response “indicating an average field G-Max rating of 166.5 and individual results between 143.6 and 188.4, all exceeding the contractually mandated maximum of 140.” Id at 832–833.

Altech objected to the expert report because it (1) failed to document that proper testing had been done or that the testing device was calibrated, and (2) Pleasant Grove failed to properly authenticate the report. Further, Altech contended that Pleasant Grove spoliated evidence by removing the turf from the football field before Altech had the opportunity to inspect and test it. At the summary judgment hearing, the trial court stated on the record that it was sustaining the objection, granting the summary judgment motion, and dismissing Pleasant Grove’s claims against  Altech with prejudice. The trial court subsequently signed a written order granting the summary judgment and dismissing Pleasant Grove’s claims against Altech with prejudice. However the written summary judgment order did not state that the trial court sustained Altech’s Grove’s objection to the expert report.

The Court of Appeals determined that, since the trial court’s ruling sustaining Altech’s objections was not included in a written order, the ruling should not be considered. Therefore, the expert report was part of the summary judgment evidence presented by Pleasant Grove in support of its claims against Altech. As a result, the trial court erred in entering the summary judgment dismissing Pleasant Grove’s claims against Altech.  In reviewing the decision by the Court of Appeals, SCOTX held that the trial court’s ruling did not need to be included in a written order since it was already recorded in the Court Reporter’s record of the summary judgment hearing. Thus, it was the Court of Appeals who erred in relying on this report to  overturn the trial court’s summary judgment . As a result, SCOTX reversed the Court of Appeals decision and upheld the trial court’s summary judgment order dismissing Pleasant Grove’s claims against Altech.

Conclusion. As can be seen from this case, construction defect disputes are often highly technical. Thus, at some point, the plaintiff will be required to present competent expert witness reports and testimony to support its claims. Otherwise, the plaintiff’s claims, like  those of Pleasant Grove, will be dismissed before the case is ever presented at trial to a judge or jury.

In this case of first impression, the El Paso court of Appeals held that  the contractor, who built an overpass under contract with the Texas Department of Transportation (“TXDOT”), was immune from liability for injuries sustained by plaintiff when he fell from an overpass. A.S. Horner, Inc. v. Navarrette, No. 08-18-00044-CV, 2021 WL 1050063 (Tex. App.—El Paso Mar. 19, 2021, no pet.).

The plaintiff firefighter-paramedic, Navarrette, while responding to a multi-vehicle accident, fell from an overpass built by the TXDOT contractor, Horner.  Navarrette alleged that:

while between the barricades, on a defectively designed and installed cement catwalk without restraining  rails he fell 20 to 30 feet through a 3 1/2 or 4 feet opening.”

Id at *1.

Navarrette sued TXDOT and its contractor, Horner, under premises liability and negligence theories. Horner filed a motion for summary judgment with the trial court requesting dismissal based upon statutory immunity grounds, under Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 97.002. This statute provides immunity from liability to a contractor who constructs a highway, road, or street for TXDOT, in compliance with the contract documents material to the occurrence. The trial court denied Horner’s motion for summary judgment and Horner appealed the decision.

On appeal, Navarrette did not dispute that Horner built the overpass in accordance with the contract documents. Rather, Navarrette contended that this statute did not apply, since his injuries arose after completion of the construction.

In holding that the statute applied, the Court of Appeals stated:

For these reasons, we disagree with Navarrette’s proposed interpretation of the statute’s text. Section 97.002 applies alike whether contractors have ongoing projects or have ultimately completed their work.”

Id *7.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying Horner’s motion for summary judgment and entered judgment dismissing Navarrette’s lawsuit against Horner.

Last Will and testament document with pen

The case of Odom v Coleman shows that all may not be lost if a mistake is made in drafting a will. 615 S.W.3d 613 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2020, no pet.). In this case, the court modified a will under Tex. Est. Code § 255.451, after the Decedent’s death, so that the will disposed of all Decedent’s real and personal property as he originally intended. This relatively new statute  allows a court to  “modify or reform an unambiguous will to correct a scrivener’s error when necessary to conform the will to the testator’s intent, which must be shown by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. at *623. The trial court found that the attorney drafting the will made a scrivener’s error authorizing the court to make this modification and the decision was upheld on appeal.

In this case, the will of the Decedent, Howard E. Coleman, stated that he intended to dispose of all of his property. However, the will’s residuary clause—the catch-all provision—limited the property devised to “personal property,” which passed first to the Decedent’s son, Howard, and then to Decedent’s daughter, Nadine. Thus, the will failed to dispose of Decedent’s real property. As a result, after Decedent died, Howard filed a petition requesting that the will be modified so that all of Decedent’s property would pass under the residuary clause. Otherwise, the realty would pass under the laws of intestacy rather than solely to Howard.

The Court considered the following evidence at trial:

  1. Decedent’s hand-written signed and notarized will stated, “I Howard E Coleman…leave all my worldly goods, land, property accounts all that I own to my son Howard W. Coleman on this day 6-15-1015. If anything happens to Howard W. Coleman it will go to my daughter Nadine Odom then to Thomas B. Coleman.” Id at *618.
  2. Decedent instructed the drafting attorney to draft a formal will that mirrored Decedent’s handwritten will.
  3. The drafting attorney testified that he used Decedent’s handwritten will “as a template” to draft Decedent’s formal will; he intended to delete the word “personal” appearing before the word “property” so that the formal will disposed of all of Mr. Coleman’s property. This was a “cut-and-paste mistake.” Id at *616–617.

After considering this evidence, the trial court entered a judgment modifying the formal will, deleting the word “personal” before the word “property”, so that all of Decedent’s property would pass under the residuary clause. In upholding the trial court’s decision, the court of appeals placed special emphasis on the provisions in the statute providing that a will may be reformed or modified to correct a scrivener’s error, “even if the will’s terms are unambiguous. Tex. Est. Code § 255.451(a)(3).” Id. at *624. The court of appeals found that it was proper to consider extrinsic evidence in determining that Decedent intended to dispose of all of his property under the will, including his real property. This decision means that Howard will inherit all of Decedent’s real and personal property under the modified formal will.

As you probably have read or heard in the news, we currently are in a seller’s residential real estate market. There is often a bidding frenzy over a home as soon as it is listed, and buyers frequently waive provisions in the standard real estate form contract hoping that their bid will be accepted. The case of Hall v. Rogers shows why buyers may want to think twice before getting caught up in this frenzy. 01-19-00408-CV, 2021 WL 2653736, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] June 29, 2021, no pet. h.).

Procedural history. The Buyers sued the Sellers for failing to disclose known defects in the house the Buyers purchased from the Sellers. The residential real estate contract signed by the parties stated that the Buyers accepted the property “in its present condition.” As a result, at the close of the evidence at the jury trial, the trial court judge entered a directed verdict in favor of the Sellers that the Buyers take nothing. The Buyers appealed and, as explained below, the Court of Appeals affirmed this decision.

Background. A few months after the Buyers purchased the home in question, they discovered multiple sink holes under the deck of the home. Subsequently, the Buyers learned that the Sellers had removed a collapsed retaining wall and replaced it with underground piers. The Sellers did not disclose this in any of the contract documents. More specifically, the Sellers answered no to the question in the Sellers Disclosure Notice as to whether they were aware of any drainage problems, water issues, or structural repairs regarding the property. They also answered no as to whether they were aware of any items, equipment or systems in need of repair.

The Buyers sued for breach of contract, fraud and deceptive trade violations based upon the Sellers’ failure to disclose material facts regarding the condition of the property. The primary defense of the Sellers was that the Buyers’ agreement to “accept the property in its present condition” was an agreement to accept the property “as is.” This barred the Buyers’ claims against the Sellers. The Sellers contended that this was true even though they did not disclose anything about removal of the retaining wall.

Findings by Court of Appeals. In addressing the applicable law, the Court of Appeals stated:

When buyers contract to buy something “as is,” they agree to make their own appraisal of the bargain and to accept the risk that they may be wrong. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. v. Jefferson Assocs., Ltd., 896 S.W.2d 156, 161 (Tex. 1995); Van Duren v. Chife, 569 S.W.3d 176, 185 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, no pet.). The sellers give no express or implied assurances as to the value or condition of the thing sold. Prudential, 896 S.W.2d at 161. An enforceable as-is clause thus negates the elements of causation and reliance on claims relating to the sale. Id.see Williams v. Dardenne, 345 S.W.3d 118, 124 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. denied).

Hall v. Rogers, supra, *5.

The Court of Appeals discussed that there are exceptions the enforceability of an “as is” clause when a seller makes false representations or conceals material information about the value or condition of the property. Here the Sellers testified at trial that the retaining wall had been completely removed from the property several years before the sale. The Sellers installed beams underground to manage the slope of the property. This was done for aesthetic purposes rather than at the recommendation of an engineer. The Court found that this did not show that the Sellers made misrepresentations or conceal material information about the condition of the property.

The Court also found that the Buyers failed to present evidence to the contrary. The evidence presented by the Buyers included that of a civil engineer who testified that the property had a steep grade, his inspection of the property indicated that that a fill material had been added under the deck because of soil erosion. There was also evidence presented that the homebuilder’s engineer recommended installation of the retaining wall during the construction of the home. However, the court found that this did not show that the Sellers were ever aware of the conditions, i.e. soil erosion, leading to the sink holes. Therefore all of the Buyers claims were barred by the “as is” provisions in the contract.

Conclusion. This case shows the difficulty of overcoming an “as is” clause in a real estate purchase contract. Anyone who has ever bought a home can understand how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of owning a new home. That is why it is important to consult with a competent real estate agent or attorney before signing a real estate purchase agreement.

In Texas, the owner of a farm animal is immune from liability for injuries caused by the animal to third parties if the Farm Animal Act applies, as shown by Lobue v. Hanson, 14-19-00175-CV, 2021 WL 1567731, at *1 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 22, 2021, no pet.). In this case, the Defendant owned 56 acres that he rented as a wedding venue. There were cattle and 2 horses on the property. The Plaintiff in this case was a bridesmaid attending a wedding being held on the property. The Plaintiff walked over to pet one of the two horses–Shiloh–who was roaming in the area enclosed for the patrons. “When she moved to pet the other horse, Shiloh disagreed, and grabbed her by the arm, shook her, and tossed her on the ground.” Id. at *1. The Houston Court of Appeals held that the Farm Animal Act protected the Defendant horse and property owner from liability.

The Plaintiff sued under theories of premises liability and negligence, claiming that the Defendant owner failed to warn the Plaintiff about the vicious tendencies of the horse and that by leaving the horse lose, the Defendant breached his duty as the owner of the facility to keep the property in a reasonable safe condition and was negligent.

Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and requested that the court rule as a matter of law that he was protected from liability under the Farm Animal Act.

The Farm Animal Act precludes liability against “any person, including a farm animal activity sponsor, farm animal professional, livestock producer, livestock show participant, or livestock show sponsor,” for “property damage or damages arising from the personal injury or death of a participant in a farm animal activity or livestock show if the property damage, injury, or death results from the dangers or conditions that are an inherent risk of a farm animal activity or the showing of an animal on a competitive basis in a livestock show.

Id at *3.

Under the Act, the Court stated that the Defendant was  required to prove that 1) the Defendant qualified as a person entitled to seek protection, 2) the Plaintiff was a “participant”, 3) the Plaintiff participated in a “farm animal activity”, and 4) the Plaintiff’s injuries resulted from an “inherent risk.”

Not surprisingly, the Court found that the Defendant owner fell within the class of protected persons under the Act. Somewhat surprisingly, the Court readily found that being injured from petting a horse was an “inherent risk” under the Act. Most of the Court’s analysis focused on whether the Plaintiff was a “participant” in a “farm animal activity.” The Court found that since the definition of a “farm animal activity” under the act includes “handling” a farm animal, then the Plaintiff participated in a farm animal activity by petting the horse. Thus, the Court concluded that the Defendant was protected from liability under the Act.

I am not sure that I would have guessed the outcome of this one. Having grown up around horses, I would not have considered being grabbed by a horse and thrown to the ground an inherent risk in petting the horse. Further, it seems a stretch to find that petting a horse is considered “handling” a farm animal. However, this case does seem to indicate that the courts are willing to apply the Farm Animal Act broadly to protect owners from liability for injuries caused by their farm animals and livestock.

Introduction.  In this case, the widow and family of Mr. Deol (deceased) sued a truck driver, Defendant Gregory, and her employer, Defendant New Prime, for negligently causing Deol’s wrongful death, in a multi-vehicle  trucking accident. Gregory v. Chohan, 615 S.W.3d 277, 295 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2020, no pet. h.)]. The trial court entered judgment for  $17 million in favor of the widow and Deol’s  family based upon the jury’s verdict. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Background. Defendant Gregory lost control of her truck that she was operating for her employer, Defendant New Prime, when she braked on ice because she saw brake lights ahead. Gregory’s truck jackknifed blocking the road. Gregory left the truck and did not put on the emergency flashers or take other action to warn oncoming vehicles.  Subsequently, multiple vehicles crashed around Gregory’s truck. Four people were killed including Deol.

Prior to his death, Deol was operating a tractor-trailer and managed to steer it around Gregory’s jackknifed truck. Deol’s truck was clipped by another tractor-trailer and Deol stopped his truck on the shoulder. Subsequently, additional vehicles crashed in the area. Apparently,  Deol got out of his truck and was subsequently killed when one of the vehicles involved in the accident struck a van causing it to run over Deol.

The Deol family sued multiple parties including Gregory and her employer, New Prime. The case against Gregory and New Prime proceeded to trial resulting in the jury awarding almost $17 million to Deol’s estate and family. The award to Deol’s estate included $500,000 for Deol’s mental anguish he sustained in the accident before he died. The verdict in favor of Deol’s family members included an award of over $16 million including for their loss of past companionship, loss of future companionship, past mental anguish, and future mental anguish.

The appeal. On appeal, Defendants Gregory and New Prime challenged the jury’s findings  that the evidence showed that Gregory was negligent and that the negligence proximately caused Deol’s death. The court found that multiple facts existed to support the jury’s findings that Gregory was negligent. These included that:

  • Gregory was already driving in the snow before the accident.
  • Gregory had difficulty seeing because of problems with the windshield wiper fluid and in turn was having difficulty seeing through the windshield because of ice.
  • After Gregory stopped to address the windshield wiper problems, Gregory failed to obtain updates on the weather reports which included a winter weather advisory warning of snow, sleet and freezing rain.
  • Gregory was traveling 58 miles per hour in these extreme weather conditions and she applied a hard stop on the ice.
  • Expert testimony showed that Gregory was traveling too fast and that Gregory did not correctly apply her brakes in ice.
  • After Gregory jackknifed the truck, she failed to activate any warning systems.

Thus, the court of appeals found that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding of negligence.

The court of appeals then addressed whether the negligence of Gregory proximately caused Deol’s death. In that regard, the court stated:

Proximate cause has two sub-elements, cause-in-fact and foreseeability. W. Invs., Inc. v. Urena, 162 S.W.3d 547, 551 (Tex. 2005). Negligence is a cause-in-fact of an injury if (1) the injury would not have occurred without the negligence and (2) the negligence is a substantial factor in causing the injury. Miller v. Lone Star HMA, L.P., No. 05-17-00954-CV, 2018 WL 3991191, at *2 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 21, 2018, pet. denied) (mem. op.). Foreseeability requires that the negligent actor, as a person of ordinary intelligence, anticipate, or should have anticipated, the danger their negligence created for others.”

Gregory v. Chohan, supra, *295.

The court of appeals found that it was Gregory’s negligence that caused Deol to take evasive action and then be struck by another tractor-trailer.

The jury in this case could readily conclude that the potential danger created by Gregory’s negligence in jackknifing the trailer and in failing to warn oncoming traffic, continued and remained active.

Gregory v. Chohan, supra, *296.

The court of appeals concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s proximate cause finding.

The Defendants also complained on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the damages awarded. Defendants contended that Deol was killed instantaneously so that he could not have sustained any mental anguish before he died.

However, a witness,  who saw Deol lying in the road after being ran over by the van, testified that Deol was shaking, rolling around in pain and making verbal sounds before he died. The court of appeals found that there was sufficient evidence to support the award to the estate for Deol’s mental anguish.

Next, the court addressed the damages awarded to Deol’s widow, children and parents for their loss of companionship and mental anguish. Deol was only 45 years old at the time he was killed and his life expectancy was 78 years of age. Thus, his family members could have enjoyed the positive influence that Deol had on them for another 33 years.

The evidence showed that Deol was a loving father and husband. Deol was the primary provider for his family and they could not afford to keep their house after Deol’s death. Deol’s wife became  seriously depressed and his children became withdrawn, inactive, gained weight, and became depressed. The court examined the record in detail regarding the toll that Deol’s loss took on his family and found that there was sufficient evidence to support the multi-million dollar award for their damages.

Final thoughts. The unfortunate death of Deol  resulted  from a series of events that followed Defendant Gregory negligently jackknifing her truck. The most critical  issue addressed on appeal was probably whether Gregory’s negligence proximately caused Deol’s death. This case  shows that the foreseeability element of proximate  case does not require that each specific event leading up to the death was  predictable. Rather, it only requires showing that it was foreseeable in general that the triggering event – the jackknifed truck – resulted in injury or death.

The summary judgment personal injury case of AEP Tex. Cent. Co. v. Arredondo, 612 S.W.3d 289 (Tex. 2020) addressed in my previous blog article (previous article) made its way to the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX). This case  involved injuries to a landowner who stepped into a hole allegedly created when the contractor, T&D Solutions, LLC, removed a utility pole on the landowner’s property. T&D was hired by the utility company, AEP, to remove the pole. The San Antonio Court of Appeals previously found that fact issues existed as to whether both T&D and AEP were liable for the injuries caused to the Plaintiff landowner. SCOTX agreed that fact issues existed as to whether T&D (the contractor) was liable but held that as a matter of law AEP (the utility) was not liable to the Plaintiff landowner. Thus, SCOTX affirmed the San Antonio Court of Appeals decision as to T&D and reversed as to AEP.

Background. On July 1, 2012, AEP & T&D entered into a contract for T&D to provide AEP  with distribution line  construction and maintenance related services. The contract designated T&D as an independent contractor solely responsible for supervising its employees and subcontractors.

AEP issued a directive to T&D to remove a utility pole on the Plaintiff landowner’s property. T&D removed the pole and certified that the job was completed in December. Some  7 months later in July, Plaintiff was injured, while mowing her lawn, when she stepped into a 2.5’ deep hole in the area where the pole had been removed.

The Plaintiff landowner subsequently sued Defendants AEP and T&D for negligence. The trial court granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment finding as a matter of law that Defendants were not liable to Plaintiff. On appeal, the San Antonio Court of Appeals found that fact issues existed as to the liability of AEP and T&D and reversed the judgment of the trial court as to these parties. AEP and T&D filed a petition for review with SCOTX.

SCOTX review. On review, SCOTX first addressed whether the San Antonio Court of Appeals correctly held that fact issues existed as to T&D’s negligence. In contending that there were no fact issues, T&D relied upon the deposition testimony of its foreman stating that the crew immediately filled the hole with dirt after the pole was removed. However, the Plaintiff presented evidence that she fell into a 2.5’ hole in the location where the pole was removed. Thus, fact issues existed as to whether T&D failed  to exercise ordinary care in removing the pole. SCOTX affirmed the Court of Appeals decision in this respect.

However, SCOTX disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision as to AEP, the utility. AEP asserted that it owed no duty to Plaintiff to ensure that its contractor performed its work safely. The Plaintiff landowner contended, in part, that the written contract between AEP and T&D gave AEP the right to control T&D’s work so that AEP owed a duty to Plaintiff.

SCOTX recognized that it had adopted § 414 of the Restatement (2nd ) of Torts that states:

One who entrusts work to an independent contractor, but who retains the control of any part of the work, is subject to liability for physical harm to others for whose safety the employer owes a duty to exercise reasonable care, which is caused by his failure to exercise his control with reasonable care.

AEP Tex. Cent. Co. v. Arredondo, supra, *295.

The Plaintiff contended that the following contractual terms gave AEP the right to control T&D’s work so that AEP had a duty to use reasonable care in exercising this control:

 [T&D] shall have an authorized representative at the Site to whom [AEP] may give instructions at all times when Work is being performed.

• When Work is performed on private property, … [T&D] shall use its best efforts to arrange for the completion of Work to be with the least inconvenience practicable to [the owner]. Work performance on private property shall be done as expeditiously as possible and the premises restored immediately.

AEP Tex. Cent. Co. v. Arredondo, supra, *296.

SCOTX held that since neither of these provisions sets forth requirements as  to “the means, method  or details of [T&D’s] work,” then they did  not support the legal proposition that AEP owed Plaintiff a duty of care. Thus, SCOTX reversed the San Antonio Court of Appeals decision as to AEP and found as a matter of law that AEP was not liable to Plaintiff for her injuries.

Lessons learned. Drafting contracts between owners and general contractors or general contractors and subcontractors can be tricky. Owners may be tempted to include specific requirements in contracts with their general contractors retaining control over the details of the general contractor’s work. In turn, general contractors may be tempted to do the same in their contracts with their subcontractors. After all, this might help prevent injuries arising from the work. However, the flip side to retaining this control is that owners or general contractors may end up being liable for injuries negligently caused by their contractors.

An injured employee’s exclusive remedy for injuries sustained on the job  is to recover workers compensation benefits, except when the employer intentionally causes the injuries. Berkel & Co. Contractors, Inc. v. Lee, 612 S.W.3d 280 (Tex. 2020). This SCOTX case shows how exceedingly difficult it is to prove this exception.

This case involved a commercial construction project in Houston Texas. Berkel & Company Contractors was hired by the general contractor to drill foundations for a large office tower. The general contractor required Berkel to participate in the “general contractor-controlled insurance program” that “provided uniform workers’ compensation benefits to workers” on the job site. Berkel & Co. Contactors, Inc. v. Lee, supra, *282.

On the day of the accident, the Berkel crew began a new piling without sufficient grout to finish it, in contravention of company policy. The grout hardened while the crew waited for more grout to arrive, and the auger stuck in the ground. Berkel’s foreman, Mark Stacy, instructed the crane operator, Andrew Bennett, to “bump” the auger: essentially, to rock the auger back and forth to try to free it from the hardening grout. After ten minutes of unsuccessful bumping, Stacy recommended that the operation be scuttled and restarted.

Berkel’s superintendent, Chris Miller, overrode Stacy. Spewing invectives, Miller positioned himself next to the auger. He ordered Bennett to continue bumping the auger while pressuring the crane’s hoist cable to further try to loosen it. Witnesses testified that some of the crane’s rollers came off the ground, and the crane’s hydraulic lines began to spray fluid. Though Bennett testified that none of the crane’s alarms sounded, other crew members testified that they thought the situation was “a death trap,” were worried that “[s]omething [was] going to break and hurt somebody,” and prepared to protect themselves from injury. After fifteen to thirty minutes, the crane collapsed, knocking over the steel leads. Lee stood beyond the construction barrier at grade level, and one of the leads hit Lee as it fell. The lead crushed Lee’s leg, ultimately requiring that it be amputated.

Berkel & Co. Contactors, Inc. v. Lee, *282

Lee filed an application for workers compensation benefits. He also sued Berkel for negligence. Berkel asserted that the workers compensation exclusive remedy defense barred Lee’s claims against Berkel. Lee pled that the defense did not apply because Berkel’s employee, Miller, intentionally injured Lee. The jury agreed and found in favor of Lee. The trial court entered judgment based upon the verdict and case eventually was presented to SCOTX for review.

SCOTX stated that the “Texas Workers’ Compensation Act is the exclusive remedy for a covered employee who seeks recompense for injury claims against the employer.” Berkel & Co. Contractors, Inc. v. Lee, supra, *284. However, there is an exception to this defense when the employer intentionally injures the employee.

To satisfy the intentional-tort exception, “the employer must believe that its actions are substantially certain to result in a particular injury to a particular employee, not merely highly likely to increase overall risks to employees in the workplace.”

 Berkel & Co. Contractors, Inc. v. Lee, supra, *285.

After reviewing the record, SCOTX held that there  was no evidence to support the intentional-tort exception.  Although there was testimony that someone might be injured because of Miller’s reckless conduct, there was no evidence as to who would be injured or as to how or when the injury would occur. Therefore, SCOTX reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Lee and rendered judgment that Lee take nothing.