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Was driver intoxicated at time of fatal truck crash? Can widow sue employer?

A truck driver died in a one-vehicle, rollover crash. Tests found drugs in his system. Does this prevent his widow from suing the employer? 

Carlos Gonzales drove a tractor-trailer for Brad Williams Farms. Gonzales was involved in a single-vehicle rollover crash near O’Donnell, Texas. He died from his injuries while being taken to a hospital.

Gonzales’s widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the employer for negligence.

Brad Williams Farms didn’t have a workers’ compensation insurance policy. That’s allowed under Texas law. When an employer doesn’t carry comp insurance, an injured employee can seek compensation directly from the employer. The employee has to prove the employer was at least 1% at fault for the injury.

Gonzales’s employer filed a motion asking that his widow’s lawsuit be thrown out because Gonzales was intoxicated at the time of the crash. Toxicology and autopsy reports included a blood test that said Gonzales had amphetamine, methamphetamine and fentanyl in his blood at the time of the crash.

The toxicology report concluded that, based on the level of methamphetamine in Gonzales’s blood, he “voluntarily introduced” meth into his system before the crash.

The trial court granted Brad Williams Farms’ motion and threw out the lawsuit. Gonzales’s widow appealed.

Widow’s burden of proof

Texas law says when an employer doesn’t have a workers’ comp policy, it doesn’t have to compensate an injured worker (or their widowed spouse) if the employee was “in a state of intoxication” at the time of the injury.

If an employer proves the employee was intoxicated, the burden shifts to the employee (or their survivor) to prove otherwise.

Gonzales’s widow noted a state trooper who responded to the crash included an account in his report that when Gonzales met with two other people for breakfast the morning of the crash he appeared to be “normal and there were no indications that there was anything wrong with Carlos Gonzales’s physical or mental abilities.” The trooper’s account also blames faulty brakes for the crash.

The appeals court said causation wasn’t a factor in deciding the case. Texas law didn’t require intoxication to be the cause of an injury for an employer to be exempt from paying compensation for the injury. All that’s required is proof the injured worker was intoxicated. Also, the account of Gonzales on the morning of the crash didn’t note what time the breakfast took place and wasn’t enough evidence to disprove intoxication.

So the court upheld the previous decision that, due to his intoxication at the time, Brad Williams Farms didn’t have to compensate Gonzales’s widow for the injuries from the truck rollover that led to his death.

It’s important to note Texas is the only state that doesn’t require employers to have workers’ comp insurance. It’s estimated two out of three Texas businesses choose to carry workers’ comp insurance.

(Francis Gonzalez v. Brad WilliamsTexas 11th Court of Appeals, No. 11-17-00130-CV, 6/28/19)

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