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County gets dismissal of claims for wrongful death, exemplary damages


A Texas appellate court on Friday ruled that a county was entitled to dismissal of a widow’s claims for damages under the Wrongful Death Act and for exemplary damages under the Workers’ Compensation Act for an employee’s alleged work-related death.

Lorenzo Ramirez worked for the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office. He allegedly suffered a fall while on the job at the Hudspeth County Jail when he tripped over a rolled-up floor mat. The fall caused Ramirez to hit his head, and he died several days later, according to Hudspeth County v. Ramirez, filed in The Court of Appeals for the 8th District of Texas in El Paso, Texas.

Mr. Ramirez’s widow sued the county, initially asserting a claim under the Wrongful Death Act and for exemplary damages under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The county filed a plea to the jurisdiction, and before the trial court could rule on it, the widow filed an amended petition alleging an alternative claim under the Tort Claims Act. The trial judge denied the county’s plea.

The appeals court reversed and remanded, explaining that generally, an employee who receives workers compensation benefits is prohibited from bringing a lawsuit against the employer for actual damages arising out of the incident. However, when a compensable injury results in death, the surviving spouse and heirs may “bring suit for the death of the employee” and to recover exemplary damages from the employer for its gross negligence.

The court noted that the legislature has applied portions of the Workers’ Compensation Act through the Political Subdivisions Law, which does not waive governmental immunity or create a new cause of action. The court said the claim for workers comp benefits was not supported under the law, as the Labor Code has adopted the exclusive remedy provision under the Political Subdivisions Act.

The court also said liability for wrongful death against a county can be imposed only by the Tort Claims Act. Neither the Political Subdivisions Law nor the Workers’ Compensation Act authorizes a cause of action or damages against a political subdivision beyond those authorized by the Tort Claims Act.

WorkCompCentral is a sister publication of Business Insurance. More stories here.