What duty of care do employers owe to their employees?
Over the years, the court has recognized that few relationships create a higher duty of care than that of the employer and the employee. Under an employer-employee relationship, the employer exercises control over the employee, makes profit from the employee’s sacrifices, and is usually in the best position to see the big picture.
On the contrary, the employee is beholden to the employer. For these reasons and more, Texas courts have decided that employers owe to their employees a high duty of care, meaning that they must go through great lengths to keep their employees safe while on the job, and failing to do so can result in substantial financial liabilities for the employer.
In this article, Texas non-subscriber work injury attorney Michael Grossman explains how all of this works.
Questions Answered on This Page:
- What responsibility does my employer have towards me?
- Does my employer have to provide me with a safe work environment?
- What happens when an employer breaches their duty of care towards an employee?
What is the employer’s duty of care?
All people who participate in our society have a legal duty to avoid harming other people through carelessness. The law requires them to take reasonable steps to avoid causing injury to their fellow man, but what exactly are these reasonable steps? Do i have to try just a little to not hurt other people, or must I try really hard?
The answer is that it depends. Our courts have decided that some people must go above and beyond to protect the people they interact with, while others must simply do the bare minimum to avoid hurting people around them. The degree to which one must avoid harming someone is called a “duty of care.” In legalese, we say that someone bound by a “low duty of care” is obligated to do the bare minimum to avoid hurting people, while someone who is bound by a “high duty of care” must really go out of their way to avoid inflicting harm.
How does the court decide whether someone owes a high duty of care or a low duty of care? The best answer is that it usually has to do with the nature of the relationship between the two parties. If, for instance, your friend were to give you a bad recommendation for a home remedy and you became ill, that is probably not something the friend can be held liable for. The reason for this is because he is held to a low duty of care; that is to say, he’s not obligated to give you reliable medical advice. The friend in this scenario is not charging for his advice, and he does not proclaim to be some type of expert. He’s simply helping you out, so the court is reluctant to hold him to a high standard.
But, on the other hand, if a doctor were to give you the exact same bad advice, he could be sued for whatever harm comes your way. Why? Because he does proclaim to be an expert, he charges for his services, and it would be detrimental to society to allow doctors to take a slapdash approach to providing medical advice that their patient’s rely upon.
Again, it all has to do with the nature of the relationship between the two parties.
As we mentioned, because of the one-sided nature of an employer-employee relationship, wherein the employer basically calls all the shots, the law says that the employer must be hyper vigilant in their efforts to protect employees for harm on the job. This is summarized loosely by simply saying that employers owe to employees the duty to provide a safe work environment.How Employers Often Get Away With Negligence In this article, we explain how work injury law has morphed over the years to protect employers and what can be done about it...Read More >
What steps must an employer take to protect workers?
When a jury is asked to determine whether the alleged misconduct of one party caused the injury of another, the question that must be answered is, “Were the defendant’s actions a violation of the duty of care that he owed to the injured party?”
Whether we’re talking about a high standard of care (like that which a doctor owes his patients) or a low standard of care (like that which one stranger owes to another stranger as they pass one another on the sidewalk), we say that the duty of care was violated or breached whenever the defendant did something “unreasonable under the circumstances.” Or, a more technical way to say it is, “Did the defendant behave as a reasonably prudent employer would have behaved under similar circumstances?”
For example, every time you go into a public building with a staircase you’ll likely find a handrail to assist people in walking up and down the stairs. Providing a handrail is considered a reasonable attempt on the building owner’s part to avoid an obvious and foreseeable source of injury. The building owner understands that people will occasionally lose their balance when traversing a staircase and it is reasonable to provide a hand railing to prevent anyone from falling and hurting themselves. Therefore, they have fulfilled the duty of care that they owe to visitors.
The important thing to recognize in that example is that the building owner did not have to install laser-guided fall prevention monitors or inflatable safety cushions that deploy when someone falls. Nor do they have to provide a stair assistant to hold visitors’ hands to make sure they keep their balance. No, they must only take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of visitors to their building.
The same thing applies to employers. They must take all reasonable steps to keep employees safe from harm. This includes:
- Providing safe instrumentalities and materials
- Properly supervising their crew
- Providing safety equipment (harnesses, hardhats, gloves, safety goggles, etc.)
- Properly training employees to do their job safely
- Proactively seeking out sources of harm and eliminating them or at least accounting for them as part of the training regiment
- Actually enforcing safety policies
- Only hiring qualified employees
And that’s just scratching the surface. The point is that there are many things that an employer must do, simply because it’s something that a reasonably prudent employer would do. By straying from this path of reasonably prudent behavior, an employer can find themselves being forced by a jury to pay considerable sums of money to an injured worker.
Also worth noting is that, much like the hypothetical building owner from above, an employer is not obligated to protect their workers from ALL potential sources of harm. For instance, they don’t have to protect the worker from incredibly obvious hazards, they don’t have to protect workers from earthquakes and tornadoes and other acts of God, and they don’t have to protect workers from injuries caused by the employee deliberately hurting themselves (read: fraud).
The bottom line is that an employer must take all reasonable steps to protect their workers from the hazards of the job site, but they don’t have to take any unreasonable steps to protect them. What’s the difference? Well, that’s for a jury to decide.
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If you have been injured while working and would like to speak with one of our Texas non-subscriber work accident attorneys to discuss your rights, call us at (855) 326-0000. We’re here to help you day or night.
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