HOUSTON – The 14th Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s ruling against an oil and gas production company facing a lawsuit from an independent contractor who was injured on a platform.
The Dec. 4 opinion, written by Justice Ken Wise, remanded the case and granted appellee Luke Meyers' motion for rehearing.
According to the opinion, Meyers was working on an oil and gas platform off the coast of Louisiana when a crane cable snapped and caused a 62.5-pound weight to fall about 50 feet, crushing his foot.
The court said Meyers sued the owner of the platform, W&T Offshore Inc., alleging that W&T failed to warn Meyers of hidden danger aboard the platform, failed to maintain a safe work environment and failed to inspect, maintain and repair equipment.
"The jury charge submitted a general-negligence question rather than a premises-liability question and the jury found W&T negligent," the opinion stated.
According to the opinion, W&T argued that "Meyers waived his right to recover on a premises-defect theory by failing to secure a jury finding under either Texas or Louisiana law and W&T owed no duty of care to Meyers because he was an independent contractor."
The trial court signed a final judgment consistent with the jury’s $2.8 million verdict, according to the opinion.
W&T appealed after 152nd District Court of Harris County denied its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the Appeals Court said.
“We agree with W&T that Louisiana law recognizes a distinction between negligent-activity and premises-liability theories of recovery and that Meyers failed to secure a jury finding on any element of his claim,” the opinion stated. “Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment must be reversed.”
Rule 278 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, cited by the Appeals Court, requires the trial court to submit to the jury questions, instructions and definitions that are raised by the written pleadings and the evidence.
“Under the rules, if the pleadings and evidence indicate that the plaintiff submitted to the jury an improper theory of recovery in lieu of the plaintiff’s proper theory of recovery then the plaintiff waives the unsubmitted theory of recovery,” the opinion stated.
If the plaintiff has waived their theory of recovery by failing to request or secure findings on the theory, then a reviewing court ordinarily will render a take-nothing judgment, the Appeals Court said.
“As an initial matter, Meyers contends that W&T invited the error and is therefore prohibited from complaining about Meyers’s failure to secure a premises liability finding,” the opinion stated. “We hold that W&T did not invite this error.”
According to the Appeals Court, the invited error doctrine prevents a party from complaining on appeal that the trial court took a specific action that the complaining party requested.
“In Texas, although premises-liability is a species or ‘branch’ of negligence law, these two claims are ‘separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor,’” the opinion stated.
The Appeals Court added that general negligence and premises liability are different theories of recovery under Louisiana substantive law for purposes of Rule 279.
“Under the rule, W&T is entitled to reversal of the trial court’s judgment if the proper theory of recovery is premises liability because the jury charge in this case did not submit a premises-liability question,” the opinion stated.
In regards to Meyers’ status as an employee of an independent contractor, the Appeals Court said W&T still owed a duty to Meyers for W&T’s own negligence as a premises owner regardless of whether there is any evidence that W&T controlled Meyers’ work.