Tyler Skaggs, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, passed away on July 1st in a Texas hotel room while traveling with the team. The autopsy revealed that Skaggs’ death was caused by choking on his own vomit while under the influence of alcohol, oxycodone, oxymorphone, and fentanyl. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency initiated a Federal investigation into Skaggs’ death and discovered that Eric Kay, the Angels’ Director of Communications, provided oxycodone to Skaggs for years and abused the drug with him. Kay also informed investigators that two team officials were aware of Skaggs’ drug abuse prior to his death. While Skaggs’ death is a heartbreaking and tragic loss, the issue of culpability for his death will be the center of the DEA’s investigation and any future civil litigation.

After Skaggs’ cause of death was released, his family retained Rusty Hardin, a prominent Texas-based attorney who handles high-profile cases, suggesting that a wrongful death lawsuit against the Angels could be on the horizon. What will happen if Skaggs’ family does initiate a wrongful death suit?

Hardin’s complaint will likely claim that the Angels’ negligence caused Skaggs’ death. To avoid dismissal, Hardin will have to answer a threshold issue–did the Angels have notice of Skaggs’ drug use? The Angels have already issued a statement denying that they had notice of Skaggs’ drug use. Generally, an employer is charged with constructive knowledge of all acts of its employees within the scope of their employment, but the employer is not liable for frolics or detours of the employee.

In this case, the question is more complex because Kay was not a mere employee; he was the Director of Communications. Fort Worth Elevator Co. v. Russell established that, in Texas, certain high-level employees are “vice-principals” or “alter-egos” of the corporation, and, therefore, the corporation is liable for all of the acts of these high-level employees. The court stated, “[a] corporation which has delegated to one of its agents the power and duty of appointing and removing employees makes such an agent a vice principal. . . . In such a case an officer or agent of a corporation who has charge of its business or of a particular branch of it is for all practical purposes regarded as the corporation itself.” In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Lane , the Court narrowed the definition of a vice-principal to three categories: “a corporate officer, a person with authority to employ, direct, and discharge servants of the master, or a person with whom the master has confided the management of the whole or part of a department or division of the business.” Fort Worth Elevator was overruled on other grounds, but alter-ego liability remains.

Here, Kay is not listed as a top executive of the corporation, so he is likely not a corporate officer, but he is the Director of Communications and was in control of an entire branch of the corporation. To assess whether Kay is a “vice-principal” of the Angels, the Court will need to determine whether Kay had hiring and firing ability and the level of control he had within his department. If the Court determines that Kay had total autonomy in the Communications department, including the power to hire and fire employees in the department, then he will likely be found to be a “vice-principal” of the Angels.

If Hardin files a wrongful death suit, the MLB will likely claim federal labor law preemption based on Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”). In 1962, the Supreme Court held in Smith v. Evening News Ass’n that state and federal courts should apply federal law to claims brought to enforce the terms of a collective bargaining agreement under the LMRA. This defense was successfully used by the New York Rangers of the NHL when sued by the family of Derek Boogaard after his overdose in 2011.

The DEA’s investigation will likely answer many of the questions that still surround Tyler Skaggs’ death. If the DEA finds criminal conduct on behalf of the Angels, then Skaggs’ family will almost certainly pursue a wrongful death suit.

Sean Horan

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