Texas Employee’s Tort Action for Fall in Parking Lot Injury May Move Forward

Employer Fails to Show Injury “Fell” Within “Access Doctrine” Exception to Going and Coming Rule

A Texas appellate court recently held that an employer—the City of Corpus Christi—failed to show that a trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider a tort action filed by an employee who sustained injuries when, after parking her car in the City’s parking lot near the office where she worked, she stepped into a pot hole, fell, and suffered injuries [City of Corpus Christi v. Muller, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 4645 (June 6, 2019)]. The City contended the employee’s exclusive remedy was pursuant to the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act. Construing a special Texas exception to the going and coming rule—the “access doctrine”—the appellate court held that the City failed to introduce any evidence that it implicitly or directly intended, authorized, or instructed the employee to use the City’s parking lot as her access route to work.

Background

Muller was employed by the City through a temporary staffing agency. She was assigned to work at City Hall. On the date of injury, Muller parked in the City Hall parking lot and began to walk towards City Hall to report for work. During her walk through the parking lot, she stepped into a pot hole, fell, and suffered injuries. She filed suit against the City under a premises liability theory pursuant to the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), and her husband also filed a claim for loss of consortium.

The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that the City was Muller’s employer and that, because Muller’s injury occurred in the course and scope of her employment, Muller’s remedy was limited solely to the benefits under the workers’ compensation insurance offered by the City. The trial court denied the City’s plea and an interlocutory appeal followed.

Did the Injury Arise Out of the Course and Scope of the Employment?

After a discussion of sovereign immunity that is not directly applicable to the appeal, the court stressed that the issue was whether Muller’s injuries occurred within the course and scope of the employment. If they did, then her exclusive remedy was under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act. If not, she could maintain her tort action against the City.

“Access Doctrine”

The court acknowledged that ordinarily, travel to and from work is not considered within the course and scope of the employment. The court added, however, that Texas has an exception to the standard going and coming rule: the “access doctrine.” Under the doctrine, where the employer has evidenced an intention that a particular access route or area be used by the employee in going to and from work, and where such access route or area is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as part of the premises, any injury sustained within that route or area is considered to have occurred within the course and scope of the employment [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 13.02].

The court added that in order for the access doctrine to apply, the employee’s right to use the access route or area must be derived from her employment. Moreover, whether an injury was sustained under circumstances constituting the course and scope of the employment was usually a question of fact governed by the particular facts of the case. The court stressed that here, the City had failed to introduce any evidence that the City intended or authored Muller to park in the City Hall parking lot as her access route to work. The City, therefore, had failed to show that the trial court lacked jurisdiction. The trial court’s order was accordingly affirmed.

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