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Employer not liable for death of impaired worker


The widow of man who died in a car accident on the job failed to show that the employer was negligently liable for the accident, the Court of Appeals of Texas, 11th District in Eastland, Texas, held Friday.

In Gonzales v. Williams, an appellate judge affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss charges of negligence and gross negligence against a farm, holding that the employer provided evidence that the worker was impaired at the time of his accident.

Carlos Gonzales was killed in a single-vehicle rollover accident involving a 1987 Freightliner while working for Brad Williams Farm in O’Donnell, Texas. The employer was a nonsubscriber under the Texas Workers Compensation Act. His widow, Francis Gonzales, filed a complaint against the employer alleging negligence and gross negligence. Brad Williams Farm moved for summary judgment, alleging Mr. Gonzales was intoxicated and had multiple controlled substances in his body at the time of his accident, and that, therefore, his widow’s claims were barred as a matter of law.

Although Texas labor law encourages companies to obtain workers comp by penalizing “non-subscribers by precluding them from asserting certain common-law defenses in their employees’ personal injury actions,” the employer can contest the presumed sobriety of a worker with evidence that the employee was in a state of intoxication at the time of the accident.

An autopsy report concluded that Mr. Gonzales had amphetamine, methamphetamine and fentanyl in his blood at the time of his accident, and that the amounts present indicated “voluntary introduction” of the controlled substances. A trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

The widow appealed, but a Texas appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Although the widow argued that summary judgment was improper because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Mr. Gonzales was legally intoxicated at the time of the accident, the appellate court held that the widow failed to provide adequate evidence that Mr. Gonzales was not intoxicated. The court further noted that methamphetamine and amphetamine are known to cause impairment and difficulty driving, and said it was likely Mr. Gonzales has used the drugs recent to his accident and that the use of them would have “resulted in intense, distracting and overwhelming rapid flow of ideas … (and) a significant decline in concentration and the inability to divide attention.”

As a result, the court held that the employer rebutted the presumed sobriety of Mr. Gonzales’ intoxication under state labor law. Although a state trooper who investigated the accident and interviewed a co-worker who said he had eaten breakfast that morning with Mr. Gonzales reported him to be in good spirits with no indication that there was anything wrong with his physical or mental abilities, the court held that the affidavit did not specify what time the men gathered that morning or whether he had normal use of his faculties at the time of the accident.

The court also disregarded the widow’s argument that the accident was caused by faulty brakes on the vehicle, holding that causation was not relevant to the intoxication defense.

Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.




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