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No duty of care over inaccurate drug test results

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that third-party entities hired by employers to administer drug tests do not owe a common-law negligence duty to their clients’ employees. This decision follows a previous ruling that employers who conduct drug tests in-house do not owe a duty to employees either.

In Houston Area Safety Council, Inc, v. Mendez, a pipefitter was assigned by his employer to work at a refinery. He was instructed to provide hair and urine samples to the Houston Area Safety Council, which then sent them to a laboratory for drug and alcohol screenings.

The first sample tested positive for cocaine. A second sample collected by a different entity but tested at the same laboratory came back negative. A third sample that Guillermo Mendez independently arranged and paid for through an alternate laboratory also tested negative.

According to court records, Mendez had taken numerous drug tests over his 25-year career and had never had a positive result. Despite the negative tests, Mendez was ordered to complete a substance abuse course, which he did. Nevertheless, Mendez’s employer refused to assign him to any jobsite.

Mendez subsequently sued and settled with his employer. He also sued the Houston Area Safety Council as well as the laboratory, alleging negligence. The Safety Council and the laboratory filed summary judgment motions arguing they did not owe Mendez a legal duty of care.

The trial court granted summary judgment.

The Texas Court of Appeals reversed, but the Texas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. In reaching its decision, the high court cited several cases in which it established that employers do not owe a duty to employees for the results of in-house drug tests. If employers themselves do not owe a duty, the court determined it would not make sense to impose one on a third-party testing entity.

Other issues, such as the at-will employment doctrine, the social utility of employee drug testing, and the risk of opening a “flood of frivolous and burdensome claims” were also discussed in the case.