A Texas appeals court ruled that an employer is not responsible if an intoxicated worker dies on the job, provided the employer played no role in the individual’s intoxication. (Clark v. EOG Resources Inc., 12-CV-00262, Tex. App. 1st Dist. Jan. 7, 2014.)
The decision affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a negligence and wrongful-death suit brought by the family of Robbie Lynn Clark, who died Oct. 9, 2008, after wrecking a company truck while intoxicated on his lunch break. An autopsy revealed his blood alcohol concentration to be 0.344, more than four times the legal limit in Texas.
The plaintiffs, Clark’s wife and son, claimed that EOG Resources did not enforce its policy prohibiting the use of alcohol on the job and negligently failed to conduct a background screening of Clark, which would have brought up a history of convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and gaps in employment owing to prison time he was serving for felony DWI convictions.
Upon being hired, Clark was subject to a background screening, but it included just three years of his driving history. Clark’s most recent DWI conviction was six years earlier and so it didn’t show up on the check.
Unbeknownst to his employer, he was again arrested for driving while intoxicated, on Dec. 15, 2007, whereupon his license was suspended. Despite that, Clark continued to drive for EOG without a license until his death.
No Duty to Prevent Employee from Self-Injury
The court ruled that EOG owed no duty to Clark to prevent him from injuring himself while driving to lunch drunk. “There is no evidence that EOG knowingly assumed control over an intoxicated Clark … or that EOG encouraged or required Clark to consume alcohol at work.”
The court recognized that Texas case law has found that employers can be liable, under certain circumstances, to third parties injured in a car crash by an intoxicated employee. One example is in Otis Engineering Corporation v. Clark, where an intoxicated employee sent home from work by a supervisor was involved in a collision that killed third parties.
In that case the Texas Supreme Court wrote: “When, because of an employee’s incapacity, an employer exercises control over the employee, the employer has a duty to take such action as a reasonable prudent employer under the same or similar circumstances would take to prevent the employee from causing an unreasonable risk of harm to others.”
In other words, if EOG did not knowingly exert control over Clark while he was intoxicated or encourage or require him to drink alcohol on the job, as an employer, it did not owe him any duty to prevent self-injury.
The court explained that a “duty attaches in the context of the employer-employee relationship only when the employer performs some affirmative act of control over an incapacitated employee.”
Because EOG controlled only employment-related activities and not Clark’s decision to drink and drive, it could not be held liable, the appeals court decided.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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