Recovery of workers’ compensation benefits is a legal beneficiary’s exclusive remedy against City for the death of a covered employee

Joslyn M. Johnson, Individually and as Executrix for the Estate of Rodney Johnson, Deceased v. City of Houston, 14-15-00176-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.] March 29, 2016)

This is a wrongful death action for an officer killed in the line of duty where the 14th Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of a plea to the jurisdiction.

This is the second opinion in this case with the factual background being explained in the first opinion. Essentially Houston police officer Rodney Johnson was patrolling alone in his patrol car when he stopped Juan Leonardo Quintero–Perez for speeding.   Quintero–Perez killed Johnson after Johnson placed him in the backseat of the patrol car. Johnson’s widow (also a HPD officer) sued for a variety of claims. The first court of appeals opinion dismissed her exemplary damages claims.  The case went up and down to federal court with multiple amendments. Upon returning to state district court the City argued, among other things, that Johnson “cannot recast her claims to avoid an immunity bar,” and that recovery of workers’ compensation benefits was Joslyn’s exclusive remedy against the City for Rodney’s death. In the same document, the City also sought traditional summary judgment on the grounds of res judicata, the law of the case, and the exclusive remedy provisions of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act. The trial court granted the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and in the alternative, granted the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

Johnson argues that the Houston Police Department General Order No. 500-05 violates federal law, and that this alleged violation of federal law was a producing or proximate cause of Rodney’s death.  The general order permitted officers to contact federal immigration authorities only regarding a person arrested on a separate criminal charge other than a class C misdemeanor, and only if the officer knew that the person was in the country illegally.  Since Quintero–Perez was illegally in the country but stopped for a class C misdemeanor, Johnson would not have known of his immigration status.   However, that does not state a cause of action for which immunity is waived. Further, Joslyn admits that she received workers’ compensation benefits. Under the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, recovery of workers’ compensation benefits is a legal beneficiary’s exclusive remedy against a governmental employer for the death of a covered employee on the job.  Nothing in Joslyn Johnson’s pleadings state a claim against the City.  As a result, the plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel: Justice Christopher, Justice McCally and Justice Busby. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Christopher.  The attorneys listed for Johnson are Ben Dominguez II and David Medina.  The attorney listed for the City is John B. Wallace.