Is a Former Property Owner Liable for a Dangerous Condition?
On September 3, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments about a claim against a property owner for injury in a negligent design and premises liability case. The main issue in the case is whether former property owners are liable for injuries that occur on the property after conveyance. The case involves a chemical plant worker who was partially blinded by an acid-addition system. Technicians at the plant regulate the tank’s acidity by adding acid or amine to adjust the pH level. Ironically, this acid addition system is an industrial product believed to be a safer process for adding acid. Chemical plant employee, Jason Jenkins, was injured while using an acid addition system. In April of 2006, Jenkins was asked to add acid to the tank, a task he had not performed before. Later the same day, he was asked to do it again because the tank had not reached the desired acidity level. When Jenkins checked the system the second time, acid had stayed in the system. The acid which remained was under pressure because when Jenkins opened the valve, acid splashed his face and injured his eyes. Occidental sold the chemical plant eight years prior to the incident to Equistar.
Jenkins sued Occidental for negligent design of the acid addition system. Occidental generally denied his claims and affirmatively plead two statues designed to bar actions after a specified period of time. The court believed the jury verdict supported at least one of the defenses so when the parties moved for a judgment on the verdict, the trial court judgment was that Jenkins take nothing. The court of appeals did not agree that the verdict supported either defense. Apart from the defenses, Occidental argued that the court appeals disagreed and reasoned that Jenkins’s claim was based on the negligent design of the product and continued independently of the premises liability claim. Ultimately, the court concluded that a property owner who creates a dangerous condition on its property may be held responsible for injuries under either liability theory, and that negligence remains even after the conveyance of property.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed the decision made by the court of appeals and concluded that if an injury should happen after the condition’s creator has sold the property, generally the premises-liability claim will lie on the new owner. The new owner assumes responsibility when the property is conveyed. In this case, because Occidental sold the property, it could not asses the safety of the acid addition system or fix any problems with it. Additionally, it had no mechanism for providing training or warnings to the people working with the system. Thus, Occidental did not owe a duty of care to Jenkins as that duty was passed on to the new owner, Equistar ,which acquired the property eight years prior to Jenkins’s injury.
The Texas Supreme Court did not decide whether the court of appeals correctly applied Occidental’s statutory defenses due to the fact that the determination did not affect the reversal of the judgment that Jenkins take nothing.