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Texas Supreme Court Examines Liability for Property Owners (2016)

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In Occidental Chemical Corporation v. Jason Jenkins, the Texas Supreme Court held that “a claim against a previous owner for injury allegedly caused by a dangerous condition of real property remains a premises-liability claim, regardless of the previous property owner’s role in creating the condition.” (P. 2)

Background:

Occidental Chemical Corporation (“Occidental”) designed an improvement to an acid addition system at its Bayport, Texas chemical plant in 1992.  Thereafter, in 1998, Occidental sold the chemical plant to Equistar Chemicals (“Equistar”).  In April 2006, while Plaintiff was working at Equistar, he was partially blinded by the acid addition system machine when sprayed acid in his face. 

Plaintiff sued Occidental for (1) premises liability because it previously owned the facility that he was injured at and (2) negligence because it was a third-party designer that designed the acid addition system that injured him and thus created a dangerous condition.  At trial, the jury found Occidental liable for its design of and operating instructions for the acid-addition system, but the trial court held that the suit was barred by the statute of repose regarding improvements to real property.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s finding that Jenkins had both a premises and negligence claim because it played two distinct roles – owner and designer.  Therefore, the negligence claim remained viable even after Occidental sold the property.  The appellate court further found that Occidental’s statute of repose defenses were not supported. 

Analysis:

A person injured on another person’s property may have either a negligence claim or a premises liability claim against a property owner in Texas.  Occidental was found to be not liable for the injuries because it had sold the property before the injury occurred.

  1. A premises liability action exists if the injury is a result of the property condition.  The duty to make a premise safe or warn of a dangerous condition runs with ownership and control of the property and therefore, upon sale, this duty passes to the new owner.
  2. An ordinary negligence claim exists if the injury is the result of negligent activity. 

In this unique case, Plaintiff argued he had had a viable cause of action under both theories, to which the appellate court agreed.  The appellate court used a dual-role analysis finding Occidental played two distinct roles: designer of a faulty improvement and former premises owner. 

However, the Supreme Court found that no Texas case supported the appellate court’s dual-role analysis and therefore only premises-liability applies to a property owner who creates a dangerous condition on the property.  Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that “the claim of a person injured by the condition remains a premises-liability claim as to the owner-creator, regardless of how the injured party chooses to plead it.”  (P. 11) 

Despite Plaintiff’s arguments, the Supreme Court did not believe (1) Section 385 of the Second Restatement of Torts or (2) the  Strakos v. Gehrig, 360 S.W. 2d 787 (Tex. 1962) decision rejecting the accepted-work doctrine were applicable. 

Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Houston court of appeals and rendered a take-nothing judgment against Plaintiff because Occidental had sold the property several years before Plaintiff’s accident and did not otherwise owe Plaintiff a duty of care apart from its ownership and control of the property.  Occidental had no means to protect Plaintiff or prevent his injury and therefore owed no duty of care, as that duty had passed to Equistar.

Because the Supreme Court found that Occidental breached no duty of care to Jenkins, it did not address the statute of repose because it was inapplicable to this case.

What this means for you:

This case is an important torts liability case for property owners. 

  • If a property owner sells its property, it may be protected under this case should later injury arise.
  • This protection only applies when the property owner made the improvements to real property.

A link to the decision appears below.

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