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Were the Angels legally responsible for Tyler Skaggs’ death?

The team’s Director of Communications was allegedly supplying the southpaw with illegal drugs.

Last month, I wrote about the accusation made by the family of the late Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs that the team had been complicit in his tragic death as a result of a drug overdose:

We are grateful for the work of the detectives in the Southlake Police Department and their ongoing investigation into the circumstances surrounding Tyler’s death. We were shocked to learn that it may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels. We will not rest until we learn the truth about how Tyler came into possession of these narcotics, including who supplied them. To that end, we have hired attorney Rusty Hardin to assist us.

At the time, I wrote that the family, with such an explosive allegation, could be laying the groundwork for the sort of wrongful death lawsuit allowable under Texas law.

Last weekend, we found out more details about Skaggs’ death - and they are worse than we could have feared. From the always excellent T.J. Quinn at ESPN,

A public relations employee for the Los Angeles Angels told federal investigators that he provided oxycodone to Tyler Skaggs and abused it with him for years, and that two team officials were told about Skaggs’ drug use long before his death, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.

Eric Kay, the Angels’ director of communications, also gave U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents the names of five other players who he believed were using opiates while they were Angels, the sources said.

Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, reached late Friday, confirmed the details of Kay’s statements, given in separate meetings with DEA agents in Dallas and Los Angeles in late September.

Let’s start with the obvious, that this would evidently confirm the statement released by Skaggs’ family in the aftermath of his untimely death. But Kay, evidently, was far more involved than even that statement had intimated.

Kay told investigators he illegally obtained six oxycodone pills and gave three to Skaggs a day or two before the team left California for the road trip to Texas, according to the two sources. Kay told DEA agents he does not think the pills he obtained for Skaggs were the same ones the pitcher took the day he died because Skaggs typically would ingest the pills immediately after receiving them from Kay, the sources said. Skaggs also texted Kay the day the team left for Texas seeking more oxycodone, a request Kay told investigators he was unable to fulfill, the sources said.

* * *

Kay told DEA investigators that hours before Skaggs’ death in July, Skaggs was in his Southlake Hilton hotel room and texted Kay to visit him, according to a source familiar with what Kay told the DEA. Kay also told investigators that Skaggs snorted three lines of crushed opioids in front of him, the sources said. Kay recognized that two of the lines could have been crushed oxycodone, but the third was not a substance he recognized, the sources said. Kay said he did not take any drugs despite being offered them by Skaggs, the sources said, because he was on a medication that would have negated the effects.

The Angels, for the record, denied that they had any knowledge that Skaggs was being provided with illegal narcotics.

If Kay were merely a low-level employee, the Angels’ statement might be more convincing. The problem is that, as a matter of law, Kay wasn’t a low-level employee.

There are certain kinds of special law books called “Restatements,” which you might consider analogous to a legal encyclopedia: they govern the general rules about certain areas of law. The Restatement (Second) of Agency governs the relationship between a principal (like the Angels) and an agent or employee of that principal (like Kay). Essentially, a corporation (like the Angels), as a matter of law, has constructive knowledge of all facts known by its employees whilst acting in the scope of their employment.

There’s a lot of legalese in there, so let’s break this down. “Constructive knowledge” is a fact the law presumes a person to have, whether they actually knew it or not. What this Rule says, in other words, is that when an employee acts within the scope of his employment, everything he does and knows is imputed to the corporation. Everything Kay did and knew in the scope of his employment is imputed to the Angels. So the question is whether Kay was acting in the scope of his employment whilst providing drugs to Skaggs.

Ordinarily, something like giving drugs - which are well outside the ordinary scope of the public relations employee’s job - would be called in the law a “frolic” or “detour” (yes, I’m serious). Employers typically aren’t responsible for what employees do during frolics or detours because they’re not what the employer hired the agent to do. So if, for example, a delivery driver stopped between deliveries to buy ice cream, the employer is probably not liable if he punches someone at the ice cream parlor.

In this case, however, that question is more complex. You see, Kay was the Director of Communications, not a mere employee. For almost a hundred years, most states - and Texas is no exception - have made a distinction between lower-level employees and higher-level employees when it comes to the imposition of corporate liability. The seminal case in Texas is called Fort Worth Elevator Company v. Russell, and although its holding was later overruled on other grounds, its discussion of corporate liability remains the standard in Texas.

In Fort Worth Elevator, the Texas Supreme Court explained that certain high-level employees, typically ones with authority to hire and fire other employees, were, as a matter of law, alter egos of the company itself and therefore the corporation was liable for all of their actions undertaken whilst in the corporation’s employ.

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 and is liable to one of its employees for an injury received by him through the negligence of another employee so appointed when the appointing agent has not used due care in selecting such employee, although the agent himself is possessed of competent skill and intelligence. In such acase 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.” (Italics ours). It is quite elementary that a corporation owes certain duties to its employees which can not be delegated to a servant, or rather, which, though actually delegated, the corporation itself remains responsible for the manner of their performance, no matter how carefully the servant has been selected; and the status of the agent, whether a mere servant or an officer, is of no consequence.

There’s a lot of ye olde legalese in there, so let me skip to the Court’s holding: “a corporate officer with authority to represent the Elevators Company in its corporate capacity, . . . was the alterego or vice principal of the Company, and his acts in the performance of his duties were the acts of the corporation, for which it is answerable in damages.” The Texas Supreme Court still applies the Restatement (Second) of Agency and Fort Worth Elevators, as you can see in cases like Hammerly Oaks v. Edwards from 1997.

So is the Director of Communications a vice principal of the Angels for purposes of Texas law? It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, the director of communications isn’t listed in the team’s list of front office executives. On the other hand, on page 10 of the team’s media guide, Kay is listed as director of communications atop an entire department. Being a superintendent in charge of an entire department was enough in Fort Worth Elevator, so there’s a very good chance being a director in charge of a department is also enough here.

Now, this is, to a large degree, an educated guess. We don’t know how much control or authority Kay had. Could he hire and fire employees? Was he on company time when he provided the drugs to Skaggs? Was he salaried or hourly? What did he do before or after providing the drugs? These are all relevant questions to which we don’t have clear answers, and the answers could prove crucial in determining what, if any, liability the team has for Kay’s actions. For the record, Kay’s former boss, Tim Mead, denied he knew anything about it.

That said, here’s what we do know. As a matter of law, the team’s statement is probably false. The Angels did have constructive knowledge that Tyler Skaggs was receiving drugs from a high-level team employee. Whether or not the team is also liable for actual damages for wrongful death in tort, if not punitive damages, should Skaggs’ family elect to file suit against the team, remains to be seen.

One last point on the subject of corporate liability. The always excellent and fellow attorney Craig Calcaterra noted this over the weekend.

At the very least, Kay’s actual knowledge that Skaggs was using drugs can be imputed to the Angels. A director-level employee knowing a player is addicted to a drug of abuse is, as a matter of law, the same as the team knowing, for the reasons we just discussed. And that means that the Angels, as a team, are already in violation of the agreement.

There’s also this.

Citing two people familiar with the investigation, ESPN also reported that Kay said two team officials were told about Skaggs’ drug use long before his death and that Kay gave U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents the names of five other players who he believed were using opiates while they were Angels.

So if the Angels are to be believed, six different players - a quarter of the team’s roster - was actively abusing drugs and the team had no idea. That may be the biggest scandal of all.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.