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State Office of Risk Management v Martinez

June 29, 2009 – Case Report

 

State Office of Risk Management v. Martinez, No. 04-08-00107-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio 2009)

 

This case stands for the proposition that credibility of the injured worker is a basis for denying an on the job injury and raises the question whether any injury sustained by an injured worker at home can be compensable. 

 

As reported by the San Antonio Court of Appeals, Edna Martinez (“Martinez”) was a child protective services caseworker employed by the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.  Martinez fell while at home on Saturday, June 9, 2001, sustaining injuries to her head, neck, and left shoulder. Martinez immediately sought emergency room treatment at a hospital. Two days later, on Monday, when she went to work, Martinez reported her injury to her supervisor. She also filed a claim for workers' compensation on the basis that her injury occurred "while she was working on generic service plans in the kitchen area" at home. When Martinez later submitted her time to her supervisor for approval, he told her that the hours for June 9, 2001 would not be approved and that her workers' compensation claim would be denied because she did not have prior approval to work at home.      

 

The State Office of Risk Management (SORM) denied the compensability of Martinez’s claim on the ground that she did not sustain the injury in the course and scope of employment. A contested case hearing was held and the contested case hearing officer (CCHO) made findings of fact including that Martinez was furthering the business and affairs of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services by making reports and service plans that she needed to present in court the following week. However, the CCHO concluded the injury was not compensable because the accident did not involve an instrumentality inherent to the employment. Martinez appealed to the Appeals Panel. The Appeals Panel agreed with Martinez and concluded that Martinez "fell and sustained injuries while working at home.” The Appeals Panel held “[t]here is evidence to support the hearing officer's decision that the claimant had authority to work at home at the time.”  The Appeals Panel further held Martinez was in the "course and scope of her employment furthering the business affairs of her employer at the time," and there existed a causal connection between the employment and her injuries citing Garcia v. Texas Indemnity Insurance Company, 209 S.W.2d 333 (Tex. 1948).  Garcia v. Texas Indemnity Insurance Company, 209 S.W.2d at 334, is a death case involving an accidental injury while in the employment of Montgomery Ward & Co., and on the employer's premises!

 

Garcia v. Texas Indemnity Insurance Company, is a case of first impression.  Mr. Garcia suffered an epileptic fit and fell from a dock at work striking his head.  The Texas Supreme Court stated “that since the fall resulted in an injury which was in turn a producing cause of his death, his death is compensable, although the fall may have been due to a pre-existing idiopathic condition.”  Id. at 337. 

 

SORM filed suit for judicial review. Martinez filed both a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment.  Both motions for summary judgment were denied. On the day of trial on the merits, Martinez filed a motion for "pretrial” directed verdict and arguing it was timely because: (1) SORM's only basis for denying that Martinez was acting in the course and scope of her employment at home was that she did not have permission to work at home, which was irrelevant as a matter of law; and (2) the evidence conclusively established that SORM was untimely in contesting her claim thereby waiving that defense. The trial court granted the directed verdict on all grounds prior to any evidence being heard. SORM appealed to the San Antonio Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in granting the pre-trial motion for directed verdict. Martinez cross-appealed asserting that the trial court erred in denying her no-evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment.

 

SORM first argued it was procedurally improper for the trial court to grant Martinez's motion for pre-trial directed verdict before SORM had an opportunity to present evidence. Martinez argued the trial court's directed verdict was neither premature nor improper. Martinez argued the trial court correctly determined that the only evidence that SORM had on the issue of whether Martinez was acting in the course and scope of her employment when she sustained her injuries was the irrelevant testimony of her supervisor that Martinez did not have prior approval to work at home. 

 

The Court of Appeals disagreed with Martinez's basic premise that SORM had no other evidence. The Court of Appeals’ review of the record confirmed that SORM sought to call Martinez as an adverse witness. The trial court's action granting the pre-trial directed verdict effectively precluded SORM from cross-examining Martinez and her version of the facts. “Generally, a party's testimony raises an issue of credibility for jury determination, thereby precluding a directed verdict. See Collora v. Navarro, 574 S.W.2d 65, 69 (Tex. 1978).”  The Texas Supreme Court has noted that there are cases "where the credibility of an interested witness or party is so suspect that it must go to the jury, even though the testimony is uncontradicted." Id. Here, the premature granting of a directed verdict improperly denied SORM the right to cross-examine Martinez and thereby challenge her credibility on disputed fact issues relevant to whether she sustained a compensable injury.

 

In her cross-appeal, Martinez asserted the Court of Appeals could affirm the trial court's judgment on the ground that her no-evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment were erroneously denied. Martinez contended that the trial court erred in denying her no-evidence and traditional motions for summary judgment because SORM had no probative evidence that Martinez did not sustain her injury in the course and scope of employment.  The Court of Appeals stated that the general rule is an order denying a motion for summary judgment, whether traditional or no-evidence, is interlocutory and not appealable. The Court of Appeals held that this case does not come within an exception to the general rule that a denial of summary judgment is interlocutory and not appealable.

 

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

The Appeals Panel decision in this case raises the question of whether a worker’s testimony will be sufficient to claim an injury, occurring at home, was within the course and scope of employment if the worker testifies he or she was performing an employment related task.

 

If you wish to read the opinion you may find it (hopefully) through the following link:

 

http://www.4thcoa.courts.state.tx.us/opinions/PDFOpinion.asp?OpinionId=22187

 

 

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