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Texas employer not liable after worker beat up supervisor

Posted On: Aug. 24, 2015 12:00 AM CST

A Texas appeals court has ruled that a workers compensation nonsubscriber is not liable for negligence, despite failing to perform a criminal background check on a worker who assaulted another employee.

Ramiro Najera worked at American Rice Inc. in Freeport, Texas, through staffing company Recana Solutions L.L.C., court records show. Mr. Najera and his team were responsible for fumigating packaged rice and picking up garbage and dead pests, among other things,

Recana also placed James Prodoehl, who reported to Mr. Najera, at American Rice, records show.

In June 2012, after the two men had worked together for about three months, Mr. Najera told his team that they would have to work late one day, according to records. Some of the team got upset, and Mr. Prodoehl said he wouldn't stay to work.

In response, Mr. Najera said he would tell the team's leader, records show. Mr. Prodoehl then began hitting Mr. Najera with a hard hat.

According to records, Recana immediately terminated Mr. Prodoehl for fighting. As a Texas nonsubscriber, the company did not carry workers comp insurance at the time of the incident.

Mr. Najera, who sustained injuries to his teeth and shoulder, filed suit against Recana and American Rice. He alleged negligence, gross negligence and respondeat superior, which states that an employer is responsible for its employees' actions in the course of employment.

He and American Rice settled, filing an agreed motion to dismiss American Rice with prejudice, records show.

Still, Mr. Najera alleged that Recana had a “duty to hire, supervise, and retain competent and nonviolent employees,” and that the company “breached that duty by failing to check Mr. Prodoehl's criminal history,” records show.

While Mr. Prodoehl indicated that he was not a convicted felon in his application, his criminal record includes misdemeanor convictions for possession of a controlled substance, driving while intoxicated and assault, according to records.

Recana filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing there was no evidence that Mr. Prodoehl assaulted Mr. Najera in the course and scope of his employment. The company also argued there was no evidence that it owed Mr. Najera a duty to conduct a criminal background check on Mr. Prodoehl for the American Rice position, records show.

The 149th District Court in Angleton, Texas, granted Recana's motion for summary judgment without specifying the grounds, according to records. On appeal, Mr. Najera argued the District Court erred in determining no duty was owed to him.

A three-judge panel of the 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston on Thursday affirmed the decision by the 149th District.

“To establish a claim for negligent supervision and training, a plaintiff must show that the employer owed a legal duty to supervise and train its employees, the employer breached that duty, and that breach proximately caused his injuries,” the ruling states.

When harm isn't “foreseeable,” there's no duty to conduct a criminal background check, according to the ruling.

As Mr. Prodoehl's job as a laborer didn't require “special or unique skills or experience, and did not involve circumstances of heightened confrontation or particularly dangerous tools or weapons … this is not a situation that foreseeably created a peculiar risk of harm to others by reason of the employment duties,” the ruling states.