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High court rules death of cop while off duty compensable

patrol car

The wife of a sheriff’s deputy killed while not on official duty but driving his patrol car is eligible for survivor benefits, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled Friday.

Ruben Orozco, a sergeant with the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, died in his patrol car in 2005 when a wheel that came loose from another vehicle on an expressway crashed through his windshield. Assigned to the patrol division and a leader on the department's crisis negotiation team, Sgt. Orozco was issued a marked patrol car as a “take-home unit,” according to documents in Mary Orozco v. County of El Paso, filed in Austin.

At issue was whether on the night of his death he was engaged in a work activity. Not scheduled to work for the sheriff's department, he instead worked an extra-duty assignment at a University of Texas-El Paso football game, an assignment that necessitates the approval of the department, according to documents.

Extra duty employment is defined in the El Paso County Sheriff's Policy Manual as "secondary employment in which the actual or potential use of law enforcement powers is anticipated.” Employees working extra-duty employment are admonished that they must "operate under all applicable policies and procedures of the Department," documents state.

A trial court ruled Sgt. Orozco had been in the scope of his employment; an appeals court disagreed because he was traveling home after an extra-duty assignment with another employer. The state Supreme Court reversed, noting in its decision that Sgt. Orozco followed all procedures in the county’s manual and had made himself available for emergency calls following his extra-duty work.

Sgt. Orozco “had indeed contacted dispatch after completing his extra-duty employment,” which is “what he was required to do under the sheriff's policies and procedures, all of which he was required to follow in connection with his extra-duty employment,” putting him within the scope of his work with the sheriff’s department, the court ruled.