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An appellate court in Texas has affirmed a trial court’s decision denying death benefits to a widow after her husband died in a car accident while driving to his office to submit timesheets before going to a jobsite.

The Case

One Thursday morning, Robert Estrada left his house and was driving to the office of his employer, Bryant Electric, Inc., an electrical contractor, on his way to a jobsite when an oncoming vehicle struck his vehicle head-on, resulting in Mr. Estrada’s death.

Mr. Estrada’s widow, Melissa Fuentes, filed a worker’s compensation claim seeking death benefits.

Texas Mutual Insurance Company, Bryant Electric’s worker’s compensation insurance carrier, denied the claim and Ms. Fuentes initiated a contested case proceeding before the Texas Department of Insurance’s Division of Workers’ Compensation (“DWC”).

The sole issue before the DWC hearing officer was whether Mr. Estrada had sustained a compensable injury on the date of the accident, resulting in his death. The hearing officer entered the following findings of fact:

-       Mr. Estrada’s “transportation to the office and to the worksite was not furnished or paid for by his employer”;

-       His “travel to the office or to the worksite from his home was not pursuant to an express or implied requirement of his employment contract”;

-       At the time of his fatal injury, Mr. Estrada “was not directed by his employer to proceed from one place to another (from his home to the company office or to the worksite) and was not on a special mission of the employer”; and

-       Mr. Estrada had not sustained “his fatal injury while in the course and scope of his employment with his employer.”

The hearing officer ruled that Texas Mutual was not liable for benefits. A DWC appeals panel affirmed, and Ms. Fuentes went to court.

In her motion for summary judgment, Ms. Fuentes argued that, at the time of his death, her husband had been furthering Bryant Electric’s affairs, his work had originated in Bryant Electric’s business, and Bryant Electric had paid for his transportation to and from work.

For its part, in its motion for summary judgment, Texas Mutual argued that the “coming-and-going” rule precluded recovery for Mr. Estrada’s death during his commute to work.

The trial court granted Texas Mutual’s motion for summary judgment and denied Ms. Fuentes’ motion for summary judgment, and she appealed.

Texas Law

Texas law provides that:

An insurance carrier is liable for compensation for an employee’s injury without regard to fault or negligence if: (1) at the time of injury, the employee is subject to this subtitle; and (2) the injury arises out of and in the course and scope of employment.

Tex. Labor Code Ann. § 406.031(a).

Texas law defines:

course and scope of employment

to mean:

an activity of any kind or character that has to do with and originates in the work, business, trade, or profession of the employer and that is performed by an employee while engaged in or about the furtherance of the affairs or business of the employer. The term includes an activity conducted on the premises of the employer or at other locations.

Tex. Labor Code Ann. § 401.011(12).

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The appellate court affirmed.

In its decision, the appellate court explained that determining whether an activity was in the course and scope of employment required, among other things, determining whether the activity originated in the employer’s work, business, trade, or profession and whether the activity furthered the employer’s affairs.

The appellate court found that Mr. Estrada’s travel furthered Bryant Electric’s affairs, but then ruled that the “origination component” had not been satisfied.

As the appellate court observed, Bryant Electric’s business called for employing electricians to work at various jobsites. The company, however, did not require any electrician or foreman to start and end the work day at the office. Instead, they began their work day at the jobsite.

The appellate court found no evidence, or genuine issue of material fact, that any implied employment contract required Mr. Estrada to first stop at the office on the date of the accident before travelling to the jobsite at which he was working. Moreover, the appellate court added, Bryant Electric had not furnished Mr. Estrada with transportation and had not directed or otherwise influenced Mr. Estrada’s route to work. Mr. Estrada received a stipend from Bryant Electric that he may have used to pay for gasoline, the appellate court acknowledged, but it added that there was “no evidence” that Bryant Electric required him to use the money for that purpose, or for any other specific purpose.

Finally, the appellate court said that although Mr. Estrada may have been going to the Bryant Electric office to submit timesheets, that was “not sufficient” to transform his trip into a “special mission” for Bryant Electric because submitting time sheets was a required part of Mr. Estrada’s job and, therefore, not a “special mission.” The appellate court concluded that even if Mr. Estrada had left his house early enough to allow him the extra time to stop at the office on his way to the jobsite, Bryant Electric had not required him to submit the paperwork at its office, given that could have used the fax machine or sent the timesheets with another person who made daily trips to the office.

The case is Fuentes v. Texas Mutual Ins. Co., No. 04-16-00662-CV (Tex. Ct.App. Nov. 1, 2017). Attorneys involved include: For APPELLANT: Bradley Dean McClellan, Austin, TX; John Edward Gibson, Law Offices of John Gibson, Lubbock, TX. For APPELLEE: R. Scott Placek, Matthew Foerster, Arnold & Placek, P.C., Round Rock, TX; Shannon S. Pounds, Texas Mutual Insurance Company, Austin, TX; Mary Barrow Nichols, Austin, TX.

About The Author

Steven A. Meyerowitz, Esq., is the Director of FC&S Legal, the Editor-in-Chief of the Insurance Coverage Law Report, and the Founder and President of Meyerowitz Communications Inc. As FC&S Legal Director, Mr. Meyerowitz, a member of the team that conceptualized FC&S Legal, provides daily analysis and commentary on the most significant insurance coverage law decisions from courts across the country and news regarding legislative and regulatory developments. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mr. Meyerowitz was an attorney at a prominent Wall Street law firm before founding Meyerowitz Communications Inc., a law firm marketing communications consulting company.