The Texas Supreme Court on Friday ended a construction worker’s effort to uphold a $43.5 million damages award for an egregious workplace injury, holding that a lower appeals court should not have remanded his case in the interest of justice.
The ruling ends Tyler Lee’s lawsuit against Berkel & Co. Contractors Inc. over the 2013 accident that resulted in the amputation of Lee’s leg. The case offered the court an opportunity to clarify the “particular victim” requirement it had discussed earlier this year in Mo-Vac Service Co. v. Escobedo, a ruling that absolved the employer in the wrongful death of an oilfield trucker who was forced to work excessive hours.
As in the “tired trucker” case, however, the court said an employee must prove that the employer believed its actions – no matter how depraved — were substantially certain to injure the worker to invoke the intentional-injury exception to the Workers’ Compensation Act.
“As we said in Reed Tool and again in Mo-Vac, the determinative factor must be ‘not the gravity or depravity of the employer’s conduct but rather the narrow issue of intentional versus accidental quality of the injury.’ The evidence adduced at trial confirms that the crane collapse was an accident – an avoidable, unjustifiable, and grossly negligent accident – falling short of ‘genuine intentional injury,’” said Justice Jane Bland.
Justices Debra Lehrmann and Brett Busby did not participate in the decision.
Evidence presented by Lee during the trial portrayed a chaotic scene at the site where pilings were being installed for a large office tower in Houston. Lee was the general contractor’s lead superintendent and Berkel was the subcontractor hired to drill the foundation pilings.
A Brazoria County jury heard testimony that the Berkel crew acted against company policy when it began a new piling without sufficient grout to finish it. An auger became stuck while the crew waited for more grout to arrive, and Berkel crew leaders told the crane operator to “bump” the auger back and forth to try to free it. After more than 15 minutes of rocking the crane, it collapsed, knocking over the steel leads. One of the leads crushed Lee’s leg.
Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals initially reversed and rendered judgment for Berkel, finding that the workers’ compensation law precluded Lee from recovering common law damages. On rehearing the case in 2018, the appeals court said Lee should be allowed to present his argument that he was in a localized area that Berkel’s supervisor knew would result in an injury.
During arguments before the Supreme Court in September, Lee’s attorney Russell Post said a retrial would present testimony that Berkel’s supervisor would have been substantially certain to know that Lee was directly in the path of the crane’s leads as he shouted commands to the crane operator.
Berkel’s lawyer, Thomas C. Wright, disagreed that Lee would be able to make a case that the supervisor, Chris Miller, knew Lee would be injured.
The court said that Miller was grossly negligent and caused the accident to happen, but did not intend for the crane to collapse on Lee.
“The Workers’ Compensation Act does not permit a suit for gross negligence unless that gross negligence resulted in the employee’s death. Courts cannot expand the remedies afforded to an injured worker who receives workers’ compensation benefits beyond that which the Legislature has afforded,” said Bland.
Although the truck driver in Mo-Vac died in the rollover accident, state law allows a surviving spouse and heirs, but not the parents, of a deceased worker to recover damages. Justice Eva Guzman in a concurring opinion called on the Legislature to change the law so that parents could seek damages.
Read the court’s opinion here.