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Ferrell v. The University of Texas System

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

May 17, 2019

BRYAN P. FERRELL, Appellant,

          Appeal from the 120th District Court of El Paso County, Texas (TC# 2014DCV4105)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Palafox, JJ.


          YVONNE T. RODRIGUEZ, Justice

         With the cost of higher education on the rise each year, more college-aged adults find that they are not only students of their chosen university; they are also their university's part-time employees. As this case illustrates, student employment is not always free from occupational hazards. The question of what happens when a student-employee is injured on the job forms the backdrop for this dispute over the amount of workers' compensation a public university in the University of Texas System may owe a student worker.

         In this case, the Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers' Compensation (DWC or the Division) awarded Appellant Bryan Ferrell workers' compensation benefits totaling 75 percent of the weekly wage he earned during his undergraduate student employment with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), basing the decision in part on an anticipated increase in wages Ferrell would have received had he accepted continued student employment with UTEP at the graduate school level. See Tex.Lab.Code Ann. § 408.044(a)(3)(requiring an upward wage adjustment for student employees whose ability to find additional employment was limited by the pursuit of education but whose wages were anticipated to increase during the comp period). The district court, sitting on appeal, reduced Ferrell's award to 60 percent of his student wages he earned at the point of injury, believing that notwithstanding the provision allowing for an upward adjustment of benefits for student workers, Section 503.021(b) of the Texas Labor Code set a 60 percent maximum benefits cap on all part-time UT System employees. See Tex.Lab.Code Ann. § 503.021(b). The tension between the student worker wage adjustment provision and the UT System part-time workers provision forms the basis of this dispute.

         We hold that the student worker adjustment provision does require upward adjustment of Ferrell's calculated average weekly wages, but that his benefit recovery is capped at 60 percent of the adjusted average weekly wage amount. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         Factual History

         The facts underlying this case are largely undisputed. Ferrell was an undergraduate student in his senior year at UTEP, seeking a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Although teaching assistantships were ordinarily reserved for masters- and doctoral-level students, Ferrell was offered a teaching assistantship as an undergrad. Ferrell had also been conditionally accepted into UTEP's chemistry PhD program.

         While cleaning a UTEP lab, Ferrell sustained chemical burns of the cornea and conjunctival sac of his right eye and a superficial injury to the cornea of his left eye when a flask of acid exploded near his face. Ferrell lost use of an eye. He was later diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder. UTEP does not contest the legitimacy, nature, extent, cause, or compensability of Ferrell's injuries.

         Procedural History

         Ferrell filed a workers' compensation claim with the University of Texas System, of which UTEP is a component institution. The UT System[1] accepted Ferrell's claim and admitted he suffered physical and psychological injuries, but it contested the amount of compensation Ferrell requested as well his contention that he suffered a disability from October 27, 2012 to July 31, 2014, in administrative proceedings before the Division. Prior to the Division's ruling, UTEP had been paying Ferrell $34.70 a week in benefits.

         The Division made the following rulings:

• Ferrell was a student and not an employee with UTEP.
• Ferrell's average weekly wage as a teaching assistant was $153.40. His average weekly wage was calculated to increase to $300.12, and the evidence established it was reasonable to expect the wages to change during the three years following the injury.

         The Division's Appeals Panel affirmed the decision.

         Once the administrative process was exhausted, UTEP and Ferrell both filed appeal lawsuits in district court, which were later consolidated. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment based partly on stipulated facts. UTEP argued in its motion for summary judgment that Ferrell's recovery was capped at sixty percent of his average weekly wages. The trial court granted UTEP's motion for summary judgment and denied Ferrell's summary judgment.[2] In its judgment, the trial court set benefits at $92.04 a week-precisely 60 percent of the unadjusted $153.40 a week wage.

         This ...

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