To Admit Or Not Admit The Admission Rule – That Is The Question

Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP


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Texas is teetering on the edge of a final determination of whether the Admission Rule will apply in future cases in the state.
United States Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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(June 2024) - Texas is teetering on the edge of a final determination of whether the Admission Rule will apply in future cases in the state. The Admission Rule, recognized in many states and at least five appellate districts in Texas, says that direct negligence claims such as negligent training, hiring, and supervision are merely legal routes other than respondeat superior to impute liability onto an employer when the employee acts outside the course and scope of their employment. Under the Admission Rule, when an employer admits that an employee was in the course and scope of employment at the time of an alleged incident, evidence of the employer's hiring, training, or supervision practices becomes inadmissible as irrelevant and likely to prejudice the jury because vicarious liability has already been established.

An appeal currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court has grabbed the attention not only of Texas motor carriers, but also motor carriers in other states in which the Admission Rule has not yet been adopted. The pending appeal is Cause No. 23-0493, Werner Enterp., Inc. and Shiraz A. Ali v. Blake. The case was appealed from the 14th District Court of Appeals in Houston, which sustained a verdict of $116 million against Werner Enterprises based on evidence that would not have been admissible had the Admission Rule been applied. This was a 5-4 decision, with not one but two dissenting opinions.

The underlying facts of the case are not in dispute; however, which of those facts contributed to this accident are very much in dispute. On December 30, 2014, Trey Salinas was operating a passenger vehicle in which Jennifer Blake and her three minor children were riding. Salinas was traveling east on Interstate 20 near Odessa, Texas, and Shiraz Ali, an employee of Werner, was traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of a grassy median. At the time of the accident, it is undisputed that road conditions were bad and there was a National Weather Alert in place for the area. Salinas lost control of his vehicle on the slick road, crossed the median, and crashed into Ali's truck head on. Ali never lost control of his vehicle, and the investigating officers found there was nothing he could have done to avoid the impact. Despite this, a jury found Ali and Werner liable for things he should have done – including driving at a slower speed. Again, there is no evidence that Ali's speed contributed to the accident.

Werner admitted it was Ali's employer. In many jurisdictions, the Admission Rule would therefore result in the nullification of independent causes of actions against Werner, such as negligent hiring, training, and supervision because any evidence of such is not relevant as to the negligence of the employee – and would only serve to prejudice the jury.

In this case, however, the trial court allowed, and the 14th Court of Appeals confirmed, that the plaintiffs should be able to put on completely irrelevant "should have" evidence such as:

  • Werner should have built a "command center" for weather monitoring;
  • Werner should have given Ali a company email;
  • Werner's head of safety was unqualified because she had not personally driven an eighteen-wheeler;
  • Werner should have installed a temperature gauge on Ali's truck;
  • Werner should have given Ali access to a CB radio in case he might have heard additional information that may have led him to stop instead of proceeding cautiously under the speed limit;
  • Werner was wrong to hire a safety director with a background that included forensic accounting;
  • Ali's team driver, Jeffery Ackerman, should not have been designated a "driver trainer" because he had less than one year's experience; and
  • The jury should "make these people hear your voice" such that "not only will Werner get the message, but when one of the largest trucking companies in the U.S. hears that message, people say, I don't want to be there, what do I have to change, I don't want to be in that situation. This is bigger than us . . . . I hope you feel it now that this is an opportunity because this is bigger than all of us and you have the power to make a change. Not only to deliver justice to this family that desperately needs it but to get the message out and have your voice heard across this country that this is not okay."

Notably, none of these "should have" items proximately caused this crash, yet the trial court and 14th Court of Appeals allowed this evidence in as part of a reptile theory against Werner on irrelevant issues; i.e., this company was so terrible you should punish them, regardless of whether any of our evidence showed the company or its driver's actions actually caused the subject crash. The reptile theory worked. The jury distributed liability amongst Salinas, Ali and Werner – with a whopping 84% of it against Werner and Salinas.

One of the two dissenting opinions from the 14th Court of Appeals expressly calls for adoption of the Admission Rule in Texas – focusing on how the jury, upon first impression, apportioned only 45% liability to Ali – but when adding in liability against Werner, jumped to the staggering 84% number. This for an accident proximately caused by the other driver losing control. The dissent points out that the majority's ruling creates a situation where employers' liability is addressed twice: first through respondeat superior, and then again through negligent hiring, retention, etc., issues that should be irrelevant once respondeat superior is admitted. While there is a gross negligence exception to the Admission Rule, there was no evidence in this case of gross negligence, and the jury did not find gross negligence. Regardless, the dissent points out that the majority opinion very loosely construes the gross negligence to such an extent that the mere pleading of gross negligence is enough to meet the exception - an absurd result.

The Texas Supreme Court's ultimate decision here will have broad ramifications no matter which way they decide the case. If they do not adopt the Admission Rule, companies can expect to see an expansion of reptile theory tactics and a rise in nuclear verdicts against motor carriers and companies who employ drivers in the course of their business.

Should the Supreme Court enshrine the Admissions Rule into Texas jurisprudence, employers will not be submitted to duplicate apportionment of fault by juries looking for deep pockets in auto accident cases. The case is important enough that amicus briefs have been filed by The Texas Trucking Association and Trucking Defense Association, The American Trucking Association, and the Texas Association of Defense Counsel. Appellee's brief has been submitted. Stay tuned.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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