Understanding When to Sue if a Spouse has Been Killed on the Job

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has recently released its annual report on work place fatalities, showing workplace deaths have climbed to nearly 5,000 deaths. This is the highest number of workplace deaths since 2008, with a total of 5,214. Since its peak in 2006, workplace fatalities have been on the decline until 2015.


Some notable mentions from the report: 93 percent of all workplace fatalities were men, with truck driver taking the lead as the occupation with the highest number of deaths at 745. Nine hundred and three Hispanic/Latino workers died on the job, two-thirds of which were foreign-born.


The decline during the last several years can be attributed to several factors. First, the strengthening of government and industry safety regulations has provided workers with safer environments. Second, the economy following the crash of 2008 led to a reduction in building and manufacturing — two of the more dangerous occupations. As the economy recovers and the promises to roll back government regulations, a likely consequence of both will be increased workplace accidents and fatalities.


Many employers carry workers’ compensation insurance in Texas. Under these plans, the employee is compensated regardless of fault and the employee’s family, in the case of death, receives partial income replacement benefits for various periods of time. The trade-off is the employee’s family cannot sue the employer for actual damages if the employee’s death was caused by negligence. This statutory immunity is granted by the Texas Labor Code.


If a family comes into our office and their loved one has been killed on the job due to the wrong-doing of the employer, is the family limited to just workers’ compensation benefits?


The answer is “Maybe Not.”


Here are the questions to ask:

1.     Did the deceased employee leave a spouse and/or any children?

2.     Was the death caused not just by negligence but by possibly “gross negligence” of the employer? (meaning the risk was known and the company ignored the risks despite this knowledge)

3.     Is the gross negligence attributable to a vice-principal (i.e. manager/supervisor) or caused by conduct that had been ratified by the company, even implicitly, on previous occasions?

If the answer to the above three questions is “Yes” then Texas Law allows the surviving spouse and/or the children, but not the parents, of the deceased employee to sue the employer for punitive damages only. The Burden of Proof is high and the punitive damages are subject to a cap of 2 times the economic damages plus $750,000 of non-economic damages. Actual damages must be proven, even though not recoverable, for purposes of the cap calculation.

We would be honored to work on a case where you are the family of a worker that has been unfortunately killed in a situation involving wrongdoing of some degree. The Law Offices of Reyes Browne Reilley will put the necessary resources to work in order to investigate the facts to determine if a gross negligence case can be made. While evidentiary and legal hurdles exist in these cases, we can put our experience and expertise to work to maximize the potential for recovery.

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