On Friday, December 30, 2022, the Texas Supreme Court released an opinion in Cameron Int’l Corp. v. Martinez, et al., Case No. 21-0614 (Tex. 2022) (per curiam), case involving a fatal car accident involving an oilfield worker driving back toward an oilfield drilling site upon completion of some personal errands.
In overturning a summary judgment for the company, the court of appeals found that fact issues existed as to whether the worker was acting within the course of scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The Texas Supreme Court reversed, finding that the court incorrectly relied upon the special mission exception in declining to apply the general rule that an employer is not vicariously liable for negligence arising from employee travel to and from work.
Cameron agreed to provide well testing at Conoco’s drilling worksite. Cameron engaged a placement agency to find contract labor to assist it with the project. The agency placed Mueller to work at the site. Mueller completed his shift and Cameron released him from the job. The supervisor for Cameron asked Mueller to remain on voluntary standby for work at a different site the next day. The supervisor then invited Mueller to dinner. Mueller drove to Pecos in his own truck and had dinner. After dinner, he stopped at a nearby store to purchase food and drink for his personal needs and refueled his truck. Believing that Cameron would assign him to a new project, he planned to spend the night in the trailer he had been using on the jobsite while working there. On his way back, Mueller was involved in an accident that resulted in the death of two people.
To establish a claim for vicarious liability, a plaintiff must show that a worker was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the negligent conduct. Under the “Coming-and-going rule,” an employee does not act within the course and scope of his employment when traveling to and from work. However, the special mission exception may apply to this general rule when the travel involves the performance of regular or specifically assigned duties for the benefit of the employer.
The Texas Supreme Court rejected application of the special mission exception in this case. The summary judgment evidence established that neither Cameron nor its supervisory personnel directed Mueller to travel to Pecos or to purchase food, water, or fuel for other workers or for the worksite generally. The court of appeals rejected this evidence finding that having access to drinking water during a long shift in hundred degree weather at a remote worksite was necessary and benefitted the employer. The Court rejected this rationale finding that nearly every task that supports a worker’s personal needs, including travel to and from work, indirectly benefits the employer.
For example, by traveling to the workplace, a worker makes his services available and in that sense, he furthers the affairs or business of his employer by making the journey. The Court noted, however, that not very journey fall with the course and scope of the employment relationship. The Court refused to extend the exception to that degree. The Court also refused to adopt the argument that by sharing some of his supplies with fellow workers, Mueller transformed his acquisition of personal supplies into a special mission for his employer.
The Court then turned to the argument that a general authorization to travel to Pecos and implied authority turned the trip into a special mission. The Court noted that it had previously rejected the argument that general authority equates to furtherance of the employer’s business at the time of travel. While the general right to control the work of an employee may answer whether the law recognizes an employment relation sufficient to impose vicarious liability, imposing liability in a particular instance hinges on an objective assessment of whether the employee was doing his job at the time of a particular event. The right to control the work is not a part of this analysis.
Finally, the Court rejected any reliance on a workers’ compensation line of authority, noting the long recognized distinction between workers’ compensation claim under a statutory framework and the imposition of vicarious liability under the common law.
The Court ultimately concluded that a personal trip for groceries did not fall within the special mission exception to the general rule that no liability exists for an employee’s negligent acts while the employee travels to and from work.