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OCI Beaumont LLC v. Barajas

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

May 18, 2017

OCI BEAUMONT LLC, Appellant
v.
YAZMIN BARAJAS, Appellee

          Submitted on March 2, 2017

         On Appeal from the 60th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. A-195, 925

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Horton, JJ.

          OPINION

          HOLLIS HORTON Justice.

         In this permissive appeal, we address whether a trial court or an intermediate appellate court, in the first instance, should expand the doctrine of vicarious liability by utilizing the "access doctrine"[1] to hold a business vicariously liable for the negligence of its employee, who, while commuting to work, was involved in an auto-pedestrian collision in a parking lot which was not owned by the employer but was the location where the employer arranged for its employees to park. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(d) (West Supp. 2016) (authorizing appellate courts to accept appeals on matters not otherwise appealable if the trial court indicates that "the order to be appealed involves a controlling question of law as to which there is a substantial ground for difference of opinion" and that "an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation"). We hold the trial court erred when it ruled that an issue of material fact existed on the question of whether the employee was in the course and scope of his employment when the collision occurred.

         Background

         In June 2014, Yazmin Barajas was hit by a truck while walking through a parking lot located adjacent to OCI Beaumont LLC's plant. The truck was owned and driven by Ikechukwu Obodo, a salaried mechanical engineer employed by OCI. In July 2014, Barajas filed a suit against Obodo and OCI seeking to recover for the injuries she suffered when Obodo struck her with his truck. In her third amended petition, her live pleading for the purposes of the summary judgment hearing, Barajas alleged that the collision occurred on OCI's premises and that Obodo was acting in the course and scope of his employment as OCI's employee when the collision occurred.[2]

         Approximately three months after Barajas filed her third amended petition, OCI filed a combined traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a. In its motion, OCI alleged that it did not own or operate the parking lot where Barajas's injury occurred, that it did not own the truck involved in the collision, and that Obodo was not in the course and scope of his employment when the collision occurred. OCI supported its motion with the affidavit and deposition testimony of Monique Shepherd, OCI's Director of Legal Affairs, the answers Obodo filed to interrogatories that Barajas sent to Obodo's attorney, and excerpts from a deposition that Obodo had given during the discovery phase of the case. Barajas filed summary judgment evidence in response to OCI's motion, and her supplemental response includes the transcripts of the two depositions obtained from Obodo during the discovery phase of the case. According to Obodo's deposition testimony, he had not yet started his day for OCI when the collision occurred, and his testimony indicates that he was in the process of completing his morning commute to work when his truck struck Barajas in the parking lot near OCI's plant where OCI had directed that he park.

         There is no evidence in the summary judgment record that contradicts Obodo's testimony that he was not yet working for OCI when the collision occurred. Additionally, the summary judgment evidence shows that, at the time of the collision, Barajas was walking through the parking lot headed toward an entry gate to OCI's plant on her way to her job, where she worked as an insulator for Safeway Company. The summary judgment evidence also shows that the parking lot was not owned or leased by OCI when the collision occurred; instead, the evidence shows that prior to the collision, OCI obtained permission from the company in control of the lot to allow its employees to park there. Finally, the summary judgment evidence before the trial court includes evidence that after the collision, OCI and others participated in an investigation into the collision.

         In her response to OCI's motion, Barajas relied on excerpts from the deposition of Monique Shepherd, the depositions that Obodo gave in the discovery phase of the case in September 2015 and May 2016, exhibits that were attached to the depositions, and the deposition that Barajas gave during the discovery phase of the case. In the trial court, Barajas argued that the parking lot where the accident occurred was owned, operated, or controlled by OCI, and that a material fact issue existed over whether Obodo, while commuting to work, could nevertheless be found to have been acting in the course and scope of his employment because he had been directed by OCI to park in the lot where the collision occurred. To support her argument that Obodo was acting in the course and scope of his employment when the collision occurred, Barajas asked the trial court to rely on the access doctrine, and she argued that the access doctrine was not limited to cases involving claims for workers' compensation benefits.

         In October 2016, the trial court held a hearing on OCI's motion for summary judgment; following the hearing, the trial court denied OCI's motion. The trial court's order denying OCI's motion indicates that the trial court relied on the access doctrine to conclude that an issue of material fact existed on the issue of whether Obodo, when the collision occurred, was driving his truck in the course and scope of his employment with OCI. In its order, the trial court granted OCI permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal and certified to the conditions required under section 51.014(d) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which allowed OCI to seek an immediate appeal. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(d). After OCI filed an application for interlocutory appeal, we agreed to consider OCI's appeal. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 510.014(f) (West Supp. 2016).

         Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment using a de novo standard of review. See Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Knott, 128 S.W.3d 211, 215 (Tex. 2003). With respect to the traditional portion of OCI's motion for summary judgment, OCI was required to conclusively negate one or more of the elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); see also Knott, 128 S.W.3d at 216. The element of Barajas's cause of action that is at issue in this appeal is whether Obodo was acting in the course and scope of his employment for OCI when the collision occurred. On appeal, we review the summary-judgment record "in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, indulging every reasonable inference and resolving any doubts against the motion." City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 824 (Tex. 2005). With respect to its traditional motion for summary judgment, OCI argues that the summary-judgment evidence before the trial court conclusively established that Obodo was not acting within the course and scope of his employment with OCI when the collision occurred.

         OCI also appeals from the trial court's ruling on the no-evidence portion of its motion. "A no-evidence summary judgment is essentially a pretrial directed verdict, and we apply the same legal sufficiency standard in reviewing a no-evidence summary judgment as we apply in reviewing a directed verdict." King Ranch, Inc. v. Chapman, 118 S.W.3d 742, 750-51 (Tex. 2003). Rule 166a(i) provides that a court may grant a no-evidence motion for summary judgment after an adequate time for discovery has passed if the movant can show that there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a plaintiff's claim on which the plaintiff has the burden of proof. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(i). Under Rule 166a(i), a no-evidence motion should be granted where "(a) there is a complete absence of evidence of a vital fact, (b) the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence ...


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