Employer Not Liable for Homicidal Truck Driver

     HOUSTON (CN) – The widow of a truck driver stabbed to death in the cab of his truck by a co-worker cannot hold the men’s employer liable, a federal judge ruled.



     Willie Valliere and John Church had worked together as team drivers for Schneider National Carriers on a Houston to Memphis route, five nights a week for more than two years, when in November 2009 their heated argument led to Church fatally stabbing Valliere in their truck.
     Valliere’s widow, Henrika Shillow Valliere, brought a wrongful-death suit against Schneider National Carriers in state court, and the company removed the case to federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship.
     In her petition Valliere claims Schneider was grossly negligent in hiring Church, and not acting on her husband’s complaints about Church’s behavior.
     Schneider moved to dismiss, claiming there is no evidence of malice on its part, which Texas law requires for plaintiff to recover damages. If gross negligence is the proper standard, Schneider said there is no evidence to support a finding that it knew Church was a risk to assault Valliere, yet failed to avoid that risk.
     Shillow Valliere claimed Schneider’s background check of Church prior to hiring him should have notified it that her husband was in danger of an assault.
     Church’s history included a 1987 conviction for vehicle theft in Miami and a 2003 misdemeanor battery charge, also in Miami, that was later dismissed. Church also reported on a questionnaire in April 2007 that he tested positive for cocaine use in 1997 but said he had been clean since then.
     A Schneider trucking manager gave a declaration in support of the company’s motion to dismiss that he never observed any violent tendencies in Church prior to the stabbing, and Valliere had never complained about Church threatening him. The manager said Valliere did complain that he and Church argued about driving schedules, and about Church smoking outside of their truck. Both drivers complained the about their partner’s cellphone usage in the truck, and about music being played too loudly, the manager said.
     When the manager offered to assign the men solo routes, they expressed a willingness to work out their issues, he said.
     Shillow Valliere claims her husband also complained to her about Church smelling like smoke when he got back into their truck after having a cigarette, playing music too loudly while he was sleeping, and honking the truck’s horn or hitting its brakes to wake him up.
     She concedes she probably knew more about the men’s interpersonal problems than any Schneider official, and even she never thought Church would hurt her husband.
     In his July 19 opinion granting Schneider’s motion to dismiss Shillow Valliere’s claims, U.S. District Judge Gary Miller wrote the fact that the drivers worked closely together for two years prior to the stabbing, without a single physical confrontation, or even a threat of a confrontation, shows Schneider had no notice that Church would attack his co-worker.
     The three revelations in Church’s background check, combined with her husband’s complaints about Church, were also insufficient to make Schneider aware of a risk to Vallerie’s safety, the judge added.
     Miller pointed to precedent established by the 5th Circuit decision in Hall v. Diamond Shamrock Refining, in which a widow sued the oil company for gross negligence after her husband died in a rig explosion 30 years after a similar explosion.
     Noting changes Diamond Shamrock had made since the explosion, the 5th Circuit held that the company was not consciously indifferent to the risk of explosions and therefore not guilty of gross negligence.
     “Like the possibility of an explosion of an oil rig in Hall, there is always a possibility that an employee will act violently against a co-worker,” Miller wrote. “That mere possibility, however, is not enough to establish gross negligence.”

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