Contributed by Caroline Toole
When plaintiffs are allegedly injured on a business’ premises, they may seek to cast a wide net and sue not just the corporation that owned the premises, but its executives as well, likely seeking additional leverage for settlement and more pockets from which to recover. A Texas court of appeals recently rejected such a suit against individual executives, holding the claims barred unless the executives owed an independent duty to plaintiff beyond that owed by the business itself.
In In re: Charles Butt, Craig Boyan, Carmen Gellhausen and Kevin Holguin, case number 13-16-00132-CV, the plaintiff alleged that he slipped and fell at Texan grocery store chain H.E.B. In addition to suing the corporation, plaintiff also sued four of its top executives, claiming they were liable because they did not exercise reasonable care in directing H.E.B.’s policies. The H.E.B. executives moved to dismiss, arguing that H.E.B.’s corporate form insulated them from liability. The trial court, however, denied the executive’s motion and they appealed.
The Texas Court of Appeals reversed, holding that corporate employees were only liable for personal injury if they owe “an independent duty of reasonable care to the injured party apart from the employer’s duty.” Accordingly, an employee could be liable if he or she “personally creates a dangerous situation that causes injury,” or “directs or participates in a tortious act.” The court determined that in the present case, the plaintiff had not alleged any facts that would support the contention that the executives had an independent duty to the plaintiff beyond H.E.B.’s duty. Analyzing the complaint, the court emphasized that the allegations against the executives were identical to those against H.E.B., and noted that “[s]uch undifferentiated allegations are insufficient to support a conclusion that [the executives] individually owed the [plaintiff] an independent duty of care” because of either their positions or their actions. The court ruled that the suit against the individual executives must be dismissed, and granted the executives attorneys’ fees.
Although perhaps not the most interesting fact pattern, this case caught our eye because it shows that defendants need to stay vigilant to guard against claims that seek to push the boundaries of traditional tort law and expand concepts of duty and liability beyond those that have been well-settled.