BEAUMONT (SE Texas Record) — The owner of a propane facility will be allowed to assert the exclusive-remedy defense under Texas' workers' compensation laws, a state appeals court recently ruled.
In its 27-page memorandum opinion delivered May 16, a three-judge panel on the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals at Beaumont concluded "as a matter of law" that AmeriGas Propane was covered by a workers' compensation policy when an fiery accident occurred at its Conroe facility on 2012. The court also concluded AmeriGas was the employer for one group of injured workers, assigned to the Conroe facility by a staffing agency, under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act (TWCA).
"Therefore, AmeriGas is entitled to assert the TWCA's exclusive-remedy defense," the opinion said.
District Court Justice Leanne Johnson wrote the opinion in which Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justice Charles Kreger concurred.
AmeriGas Propane, a limited partnership organized in Delaware, owns AmeriGas Cylinder Exchange facility in Conroe where empty propane tanks are delivered, cleaned, refilled and then redistributed for sale.
The case stems from a fire in November 2012 that started while workers at the Conroe facility were refilling tanks, according to the background portion of the opinion. Gas escaped and ignited, injuring workers, including Roberto Cabrera, Jose Francisco Aboytes-Muñiz, Andy Medina-Cardenas and Bernabe Bustillo Rivera.
Aboytes-Muñiz, Medina-Cardenas and Bustillo Rivera were employed by a staffing agency and assigned to the Conroe facility at the time of the accident "but AmeriGas controlled the details of the work performed by Intervenors at the AmeriGas Facility," the opinion said
Almost three years later, in August of 2015, Cabrera filed suit against Amerigus, against AmeriGas, over his injuries and later settled. Cabrera is not a party in the appeal.
In September 2015, Aboytes-Muñiz, Medina-Cardenas and Bustillo Rivera filed petitions to intervene in Cabrera lawsuit, claiming premises liability, negligence and gross negligence over their own injuries during the accident. This group of injured workers are referred to in the opinion as "intervenors."
In its answer, AmeriGas claimed a general denial and affirmative defenses of statute of limitations and exclusive remedy under the TWCA. The TWCA allows injured workers to recover benefits for work-related injuries on a no-fault basis, a provision intended to benefit employees and employers.
The TWCA also allows for an employee to have more than one employer. "If an employee of a staffing agency is injured while working under a client company’s direct supervision, the employee can pursue workers' compensation benefits from either the staffing agency or the client company - and be subject to the exclusive remedy provision as to both - if each provided coverage," the opinion said.
After a couple of years in the litigation, AmeriGas filed a motion for reconsideration of Montgomery County 284th District Court November 2017 order that granted the injured workers' no-evidence motion for partial summary judgment. As an alternative, AmeriGas also offered a motion to amend the trial court's order dated to certify the question for interlocutory appeal.
The following March, the trial court denied AmeriGas' traditional motion for summary judgment and the company's motion for reconsideration of its earlier grant of partial summary judgment in favor of some of the injured worked. The trial court also amended its order to allow for an interlocutory appeal, identifying three controlling questions for the appeal.
The appeals court concluded the there is no disputed about whether AmeriGas was an employer under the TWCA, according to the opinion.
"Even after considering the undisputed evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmovants, the evidence established that AmeriGas had the right to control the intervenor's work," the opinion said.