Texas Court: Employer Not Liable for Fatigued Worker’s Off Duty Activity

June 23, 2009

The Supreme Court of Texas has ruled that employers generally do not owe a duty to third parties for the activities of off duty employees that occur away from the work site, even if those activities ultimately lead to a lawsuit.

In the Court’s written opinion, Justice Paul W. Green noted that the Court previously has “recognized a limited exception to this rule when an employer exercises control over the injury-causing conduct of its employee, imposing a duty, for example, when an employer sent an obviously intoxicated employee to drive home.”

However, in Nabors Drilling, U.S.A. Inc. v. Francisca Escoto (Case No. 06-0890), which concerned an employer whose work conditions could induce extreme fatigue in its employees, the Court held “that the employer had no duty to prevent injury due to the fatigue of its off-duty employee or to train employees about the dangers of fatigue.”

Justice Green described the case as follows:

“Nabors Drilling U.S.A., Inc., the largest land-based driller in the continental United States, hired nineteen-year-old Robert Ambriz to work in its oil fields. Nabors’s work schedule required that Ambriz work twelve-hour day shifts from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. one week, take a week off, and then work twelve-hour night shifts from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. the following week.

“After working approximately four months at several of Nabors’s sites, Ambriz was sent to work at Nabors’s McCook site, where he began with a week of night shifts.

“The supervisor inspected the crew the evening that Ambriz started his first shift, to ensure that the employees were fit to work. Ambriz’s shift ended at 6:00 a.m., and he left the site about ten minutes later. Just before he left, a coworker who did not believe that Ambriz looked or acted tired told Ambriz to stay at the work site in trailers provided by Nabors, but Ambriz chose to leave.

“While driving along a farm-to-market road at approximately 6:30 a.m., Ambriz crossed to the wrong side of the road and collided with a vehicle driven by Martin Rodriguez and occupied by Robert Escoto, Jose Gutierrez, and Leovarda Torres. The accident resulted in the death of Ambriz, Rodriguez, and all three passengers.”

The lawsuit claimed that both Ambriz and Nabors were negligent and responsible for the collision. A jury found that Ambriz was 57 percent responsible and Nabors was 43 percent responsible and awarded a judgment of $5.95 million.

“However, the trial court signed a take-nothing judgment, ruling that Nabors owed Escoto no duty,” Justice Green wrote. “The court of appeals reversed, holding that Nabors owed the plaintiffs a duty and rejecting Nabors’s other arguments in support of the take-nothing judgment.”

In its discussion of the case the Court noted that because of “the large number of Texans who do shift work and work long hours (including doctors, nurses, lawyers, police officers, and others), there is little social or economic utility in requiring every employer to somehow prevent employee fatigue or take responsibility for the actions of off-duty, fatigued employees.”

As such, the Court found that Nabors had neither the duty to prevent injuries resulting from the actions of a fatigued employee who had completed a work-shift schedule, nor the “duty to train its employees regarding the dangers of fatigue.”

Source: Supreme Court of Texas, www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us

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