Texas Supreme Court May be Inclined to Grant Chapter 87 Immunity to Employers

If the Texas Workers' Compensation Act and the Texas Farm Animal Limitation of Liability Act got into a fight, who would win?  The Supreme Court of Texas might have just metaphorically placed its money on the farm animals.

The Court held last week in Texas West Oaks Hosp. v. Williams, that an employee of a nonsubscriber hospital employer must comply with the procedures set forth in the Texas Medical Liability Act (i.e. the progeny of the 2003 tort reform movement), and barred the employee's claims against his employer.

If I haven’t already lost you, you are probably thinking,

Wait a minute, what is a “nonsubscriber”, and what does a case about a hospital employee have to do with the horse industry? 

Bear with me, this material is sort of complicated, but I hope the point of this post will be clear to you by the time you get to the end (if you in fact make it that far!)

Nonsubscriber Status. Are you a nonsubscriber?  Most Texas horse industry employers are “nonsubscribers”, at least for some of their employees.  If you have employees or so-called “independent contractors” who might really be employees under the true legal definition, you should be aware if you are or are not a nonsubscriber. 

Why does it matter? The Texas Workers’ Compensation Act allows employers to elect whether or not they will subscribe to worker’s compensation insurance.  If an employer does subscribe and an employee is hurt during the scope of their employment, the employee is generally precluded from filing suit, and must instead pursue administrative remedies for benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. 

But if an employer elects to forego workers’ compensation coverage, it is subject to suits at common law for injuries suffered by employees on the job. Not only that, nonsubscribers are generally not able to avail themselves of many common-law defenses to negligence claims in suits brought by employees. See this prior post for more details. 

That said, I should note as an aside that some “farm or ranch employees” are excluded from the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act altogether (did I mention before that this is complex stuff?).

So here’s the question that remains unsettled: What if a nonsubscriber employer is sued by an employee, and the employee’s injuries arose from dangers inherent in an equine activity? Can the employer invoke the immunity from liability granted to virtually all people in the Farm Animal (formerly Equine) Limitation of Liability Act (um...we'll just call it Chapter 87)? 

As we have discussed at length, the Supreme Court has not yet decided this issue. Two appellate courts have indicated a willingness to apply Chapter 87 to bar suits brought by horse industry independent contractors, but one court of appeals refused to apply Chapter 87 to bar a suit brought by a horse industry employee. 

Plaintiffs’ lawyers who represent injured employees generally assert the argument that Chapter 87 was intended to apply to tourists or consumers, and not workers. They further assert that Chapter 87 cannot bar employees’ suits because it would abrogate employer duties under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  The employee's lawyers in Williams made similar arguments about the Medical Liability Act.

The Williams DecisionWilliams is significant to the equine industry, at least in my mind, because it shows a willingness on the part of the Supreme Court to allow “tort reform” type statutes to bar an employee’s claim against a nonsubscriber. Not unlike the Medical Liability Act, Chapter 87 is another law that was passed to limit liability for certain types of claims. Furthermore, the plain language of Chapter 87 itself does not exclude suits brought against nonsubscriber employers (though it does expressly carve out other stuff, such as activities regulated by the Texas Racing Commission).  As such, I predict that if the Supreme Court of Texas ultimately takes up the issue, it is inclined to rule that Chapter 87’s immunity provisions apply to employees and other workers (subject to its exceptions, of course) .

Related posts:

Are Employers Immune from Liability for Employees’ Horse-Related Injuries in Texas?

Another Appellate Court Holds Chapter 87 Immunity Act Applies to Suits Brought by Independent Contractors

Update on Young v. McKim

Guest Post by Russell Cawyer: Does Your Farm Need to Purchase Worker's Compensation Insurance?

Russell D. Cawyer, a lawyer in my firm who publishes the Texas Employment Law Update, offers the following insights on the decision many horse farms are faced with...do you need to buy worker's compensation insurance?

"Most farm, ranch and horse owners are employers to some extent or another. Whether employing stable workers, trainers, or other labor, most of these relationships would be legally classified as employment (rather than independent contractor) relationships–even if the services are on a short-term or infrequent basis. The purpose of this post is to discuss the differences between employers that are worker’s compensation subscribers and those that are nonsubscribers.

Worker’s compensation is a form of insurance purchased by employer to provide coverage for medical expenses, partial income and disability benefits for an employee suffering an injury or illness arising in the course and scope of his or her employment. In Texas, employers are permitted to opt-out of the state worker’s compensation. These employers are called nonsubscribers. There are advantages and disadvantages

The primary advantage of worker’s compensation coverage is that workers compensation subscribers (i.e., employers having workers compensation insurance coverage) cannot be held liable in court for employee injuries or illnesses that occurred in the course and scope of the employee’s employment. This protection does not apply to individuals who are independent contractors of an employer. The primary disadvantage to worker’s compensation coverage is its cost. Another disadvantage is that worker’s compensation subscribers cannot discriminate or retaliate against employees who report or have workplace injuries, and employees can sue employers if they experience an adverse employment action shortly after reporting or having a worker’s compensation claim.

Nonsubscribers, on the other hand, cannot be sued for discrimination or retaliation for taking adverse action against an employee that has been injured on the job.  They can, however, be sued by the employees for negligence and gross negligence when they are injured at work. The law is written to encourage employers to purchase workers compensation insurance. Consequently, nonsubscribers have few defenses to these claims such as claims for contributory or comparative negligence (aka “proportionate liability”) where liability is apportioned between the employer and employee based on percentages of relative fault. The only defenses a nonsubscriber has is that the employee was the sole cause of the injury or was intoxicated at the time. 

Understand that your general liability, homeowners or umbrella insurance policies alone do not provide coverage employee injuries or illnesses. Most such policies have exclusions that do not cover claims made by employees or those otherwise providing services for the employer (i.e., independent contractors). Whether to purchase worker’s compensation insurance is an important business decisions and the pros and cons of that decision should be weighed carefully."

Horse Insurance 101: Commercial Equine Liability


If you board, breed, race, train, give riding lessons or conduct any kind of business-related equine activity, I highly recommend that you consider a Commercial Equine Liability policy. 

Homeowner’s and standard Farm & Ranch insurance policies completely exclude your equine business pursuits. 

Commercial liability insurance pays the damages for liability imposed upon you or your business by a liability claim or court judgment.  It also pays the cost of defending you when a lawsuit is brought against you.

This policy kicks in when an accident occurs and someone is hurt, regardless of whether you own the horse involved.

However, the basic Commercial Equine Liability policy does not cover claims for damage to property in your care, custody or control.  If someone claims, for example, that you injured their horse in the course of training it, you would need a Care, Custody & Control policy to cover that damage claim.

The Equine Activity Laws may help you provide a defense in the event of an equine incident, but they will not prevent you from being sued.  Without adequate liability coverage you will have to pay damages and defense costs yourself.  And the Equine Liability Laws only cover “inherent risks” in equine activities.  Some plaintiffs are able to successfully argue that their situation did not involve an “inherent risk”.  In other words, you could lose the case.  It bears repeating that defense costs are generally not recoverable by defendants in Texas lawsuits.

Commercial Equine Liability policies are designed to help protect you if you are sued by a third party who is injured or whose property is damaged.  A third party is generally someone who is not a family member or employee. 

If you have employees, you should consider carrying workman's compensation insurance as they are not covered under the general liability policy.  You should also make sure that any independent contractors that work with you show proof of their own liability insurance and ask that you be named as an Additional Insured on their policy.  This is especially true if you have an independent instructor or trainer working at your facility.

In addition to this policy, I recommend that all equine businesses 1) post the applicable Equine Activity Law in your state in conspicuous areas in your barn and on your property; and 2) have each third party who uses your facility sign a liability waiver that contains a covenant not to sue and specifically waives liability for ordinary negligence.   

 

Photo credit:  Katarina 2353 (Flikr)