Hard hats are supposed to protect, not injure workers. But after suffering some loose teeth and a shoulder injury, a worker tried to sue his employer because he was pummeled by a co-worker wielding a hard hat.
American Rice Inc. operates a rice mill in Freeport, TX, and hired staffing company Recana Solutions LLC to find laborers for the facility.
Ramiro Najera was hired by Recana to lead a team which would fumigate the plant regularly.
James Prodoehl was also hired by Recana and reported to Najera.
On June 4, 2012, an American Rice supervisor informed Najera that his team needed to stay late that day to take care of some extra work. Najera told his team, and some of them got upset. Prodoehl told Najera that he wasn’t going to work. Najera responded that he’d let the American Rice supervisor know. Then Prodoehl began hitting Najera with a hard hat. Najera suffered loose front teeth and an injured shoulder. Recana fired Prodoehl immediately for fighting.
Najera sued Recana and American Rice alleging negligence. American Rice settled with Najera, but he continued his lawsuit against Recana.
Specifically, Najera alleged Recana:
- had a duty to hire, supervise and retain competent and nonviolent employees, and
- breached that duty by failing to check Prodoehl’s criminal history.
In his Recana employment application, Prodoehl said he wasn’t a convicted felon. But his criminal record included misdemeanor convictions for possession of a controlled substance, DWI and, most importantly to this case, assault.
Najera claimed Recana should have performed a criminal background check on Prodoehl.
A judge agreed to Recana’s request to throw out Najera’s lawsuit. Najera appealed, and a Texas district court recently handed down its decision.
Liable for employee safety … up to a point
The appeals court noted that employers have a duty to “use ordinary care” to provide a safe workplace for employees:
“Therefore, an employer is liable if it hires, retains or supervises an employee whom it know or should have known was not competent or fit for the job and whose incompetence or unfitness creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others because of the employee’s job-related duties.”
Najera and Recana disagreed on whether the company had a duty to perform a criminal background check of Prodoehl.
The court found:
- Prodoehl’s job on the fumigation team didn’t involve “circumstances of heightened confrontation or particularly dangerous tools or weapons.”
- Therefore, this wasn’t a situation that foreseeably created a particular risk of harm, and
- The circumstances didn’t reflect any special relationships that would require a criminal background check for Prodoehl.
The appeals court concluded Recana had no duty to perform a criminal background check. It upheld the lower court’s ruling to throw out Najera’s lawsuit against Recana.
(Ramiro Najera v. Recana Solutions LLC, Court of Appeals of Texas, 14th District, No. 14-14-00332-CV, 8/20/15)