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Texas Supreme Court Weekly Update June 1, 2021

On Behalf of | Jun 1, 2021 | Texas Supreme Court Weekly Update

Over the last several weeks, the Texas Supreme Court has been very busy and has issued opinions on a variety of issues including the interplay between contractual provisions and evidence of actual control in the evaluation of whether a worker is an independent contractor and provided guidance on controverting affidavits under Section 18.001 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. Each of these opinions is briefly summarized in this blog:

  1.   In Waste Management of Texas Inc. and Rigoberto Zelaya v. Robert Stevenson, the Texas Supreme Court considered whether a temporary employee hired through a staffing agency was an employee of Waste Management for workers compensation purposes. Stevenson was injured on the job while working temporarily on a Waste Management garbage-truck. He was employed through a staffing agency that had a contract with Waste Management, which specified that temporary workers like Stevenson “shall be independent contractors in respect of Waste Management.”

After Stevenson was injured he applied for workers compensation benefits under the staffing agency’s workers compensation clause and then sued Waste Management alleging common-law negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment for Waste Management after it argued that the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act barred Stevenson’s claims. The 14th District Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a genuine fact issue existed as to whether Stevenson was an employee of Waste Management.

On appeal, the Court applied the “right-to-control” test and noted that the summary judgment evidence showed that Waste Management controlled the details and methods of Stevenson’s work. Ultimately, the Court concluded that, while the terms of the Master Agreement are a factor to be considered, the contract is not dispositive, and in this case, it did not create a fact issue sufficient to avoid summary judgment in light of the undisputed evidence that Waste Management exercised actual control over Stevenson’s work.

  1. In Catholic Diocese of El Paso and Heritage Operating L.P. v. Rita Porter et al., the Texas Supreme Court addressed first whether volunteers for a vendor on the church property are invitees under premises-liability law and second whether the trial court’s failure to instruct jurors to disregard a “nobody’s responsible” argument should be reversed when unavoidable accident was not pleaded.

This case involved 4-H volunteers that were burned in a fire at a booth that the 4-H rented from the church during an annual festival. The 4-H provided its own equipment, and the church did not receive any part of the 4-H’s sales. The parents of the 4 teenage volunteers sued the Church and Heritage Operating, which allegedly filled the 4-H’s propane tank. At trial, the jury found that the 4-H volunteers were licensees on the church property, and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment on the verdict. The court of appeals held that the volunteers were the Church’s invitees as a matter of law but agreed with the trial court’s ruling regarding Heritage. The court of appeals also determined that the trial court erred by failing to correct a statement by the Church’s attorney that no one might be responsible.

On review, the Texas Supreme Court held that the 4-H volunteers were licensees as a matter of law and that counsel’s argument that no one might be responsible was proper.

First, the Court clarified that, absent unusual circumstances, a person on property performing work for a third party usually benefits the third party, not the property owner, and therefore, that person is not the owner’s invitee.

Second, the Court reasoned that it was not error for the trial court to refuse to instruct the jury to disregard counsel’s argument that the jury could “find nobody’s responsible,” because (1) counsel correctly stated the law, i.e. juries are not required to find someone at fault, and (2) counsel’s argument was “well within the evidence” because the evidence present at the 4-week trial was conflicting.

  1. In re Allstate Indemnity Co. was a mandamus petition in which the Court was asked to consider various issues relating to controverting affidavits under Section 18.001 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.

 Ultimately, the Court held that (1) Section 18.001 does not require a controverting affidavit to meet the admissibility requirements for expert testimony, (2) a controverting affiant does not need to be a medical professional in the same medical field to controvert the reasonableness of medical charges, (3) “reasonable notice” in this context if equivalent to the fair notice pleading standard under Rule 47 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, (4) nothing in Section 18.001 supports prohibiting a defendant from presenting its own evidence regarding the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s medical expenses or challenging the plaintiff’s evidence through cross examination or jury argument, and (5) in light of the scope of the trial court’s order in this case, mandamus relief was appropriate.

  1. In In re USAA General Indemnity Co., the underlying motor vehicle accident case was tried and a negligence verdict returned; however, the case was settled and dismissed without entering judgment on the jury’s verdict. The UIM insurer consented to be bound to the judgment on the negligence verdict and asked the trial court to render judgment in its favor on the jury’s verdict. The trial court declined to do so, and the insurer sought mandamus relief.

The Texas Supreme Court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to render judgment for the insurer on the verdict. First, the Court explained that collateral estoppel does not apply to prevent an insured from relitigating a motorist’s negligence in the absence of a final judgment. Second, the Court explained that for purposes of calculating UIM benefits, the judgment, rather than the jury’s verdict, establishes the amount an insured is “legally entitled to recover,” and that a party’s pre-judgment agreed dismissal renders the jury’s verdict unenforceable. The insurer’s post-verdict consent did not revive the verdict or otherwise alter the effect of the pre-judgment settlement and dismissal entered in this case.

  1. Finally, in JLB Builders LLC v. Jose Hernandez, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on whether the evidence established that JLB retained sufficient control – by contract or by the exercise of actual control — over a subcontractor’s work to be liable for injuries resulting from the work.

In this case, Hernandez was an employee of Capform, an independent contractor of JLB, and he was injured on a high-rise construction project when a rebar towed fell on his legs. Contending that JLB retained contractual and actual control over Capform’s work, Hernandez sued JLB for negligence and gross negligence. The trial court granted traditional and no-evidence summary judgment in favor of JLB. The court of appeals ultimately reversed the trial court’s judgment as to the negligence claim.

On review, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that no evidence had been raised to establish the existence of a duty and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The Court explained that the summary judgment evidence showed merely that JLB controlled the overall timing and sequence of work being performed by various independent subcontractors and that JLB has a safety employee at the work site. Such evidence is insufficient to raise a fact issue as to whether a general contractor exercised actual control over a subcontractor with respect to the injury-causing work.

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