• Employer Pays Punitive Damages for Negligent Drug Test
  • June 18, 2003 | Author: Christopher A. Knepp
  • Law Firm: Vinson & Elkins LLP - Austin Office
  • The Court of Appeals in Beaumont affirmed a jury award that included punitive damages against an employer that negligently administered a drug test. Differing from prior decisions relating to drug testing, the Beaumont Court determined that employers owe a duty to their employees to use reasonable care when collecting urine samples for drug testing in Mission Petroleum Carriers, Inc., v. Solomon, No.09-99-533 CV (Tex. App.--Beaumont Feb. 22, 2001, no pet. h.).

    In Mission Petroleum, the plaintiff, Roy Solomon, was a truck driver for Mission Petroleum and was subject to random drug tests pursuant to Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. Mission Petroleum collected urine samples in its Beaumont terminal office. Solomon testified that he provided a urine sample in a beaker that had been sitting on the terminal manager's desk and that it was exposed and unsealed when Solomon took it. No one instructed Solomon to wash his hands before providing the sample, and Solomon did not know who had handled the open beaker before he did.

    Solomon was later informed that his specimen had tested positively for marijuana, and he was subsequently terminated and unable to find other work as a truck driver due to this "positive result." Solomon claimed that he had never used marijuana. At trial, two of his co-workers testified they had never "heard" he used marijuana; a psychiatrist and a therapist testified that Solomon did not have any characteristics of a typical drug user; and a negative drug test result from a hair sample taken after Solomon's termination was introduced. However, no evidence was introduced to suggest contamination of the sample.

    Solomon also put forth evidence that there were at least a dozen urine specimen collection businesses in Beaumont that could have been used by Mission Petroleum. Additionally, Solomon introduced evidence that Mission Petroleum violated the DOT regulations regarding collection of drug test samples. Based on this evidence, the Court determined that Mission Petroleum undertook a duty of reasonable care when it refused to use the available labs for urine collection, and violated that duty.

    The Court upheld the trial court's judgment and award of damages to the plaintiff, including the award of punitive damages. Evidence put forth at trial showing that Mission Petroleum did not properly train its employees regarding the collection and handling of urine samples and that the samples were consistently mishandled by Mission Petroleum's employees demonstrated to the Court that Mission Petroleum had an actual awareness of the risk of serious harm and disregarded this risk. This was sufficient intent for the Court to uphold the punitive damages.

    Mission Petroleum departs from previous decisions of Texas courts that have held that employers owe no duty to employees and cannot be sued for negligence. Employers who perform drug testing, either pursuant to regulatory requirements or otherwise, should ensure that proper testing procedures are followed and should consider using outside laboratories to collect and test their employees.