Court Finds in Favor of Arguments Presented by Brown & James Principals
The long wait is over. The Missouri Supreme Court’s decisions addressing co-employee liability were handed down on June 7, 2016. Following the 2005 amendment to Missouri’s Workers’ Compensation Law, which was interpreted to eliminate an employee’s immunity for tort claims brought by co-employees, employers and their employees faced new exposures for which general liability insurers do not provide coverage and subjected co-employees in many cases to uninsured liability. The resulting decisions handed down by Missouri’s appellate courts reached contradictory conclusions concerning co-employee liability, including the application of the “something more” doctrine, and whether such claims were susceptible of resolution by dispositive motions.
The Missouri Supreme Court has now answered these questions. The Court’s decisions, both decided in favor of the defendant co-employee, will define the contours for all co-employee liability claims that fall within the window between the 2005 and 2012 amendments of the Workers’ Compensation Law. Both decisions make plain that a co-employee has no liability as a matter of law for the injuries of fellow worker when the harm falls under the employer’s non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace for its employees.
The first decision issued by the Supreme Court was in Peters v. Terrio, No. SC94442 (Mo. banc, June 7, 2016), a case in which the injured worker sued his supervisor following a workplace accident in which the supervisor had been warned that the way the employer stacked and transported certain construction materials was dangerous, but ordered the worker to transport the materials anyway.
The Peters case had been argued before the Missouri Supreme Court on the defendant co-employee’s behalf by Principal Teresa M. Young of Brown & James’s Appellate Practice Group. The original trial court matter had been tried successfully on the defendant co-employee’s behalf by Brown & James Principals John P. Rahoy and Edward W. Zeidler II.
The Supreme Court, in Peters, put to rest the argument that the question of duty in a co-employee liability case is a fact question based on the problematic decision of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in Leeper v. Asmus, 440 S.W.3d 478 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014). The Supreme Court expressly overruled Leeper to the extent that the Leeper decision held that the existence of a duty is not a pure question of law. The Supreme Court’s decision on this procedural question gives co-employees a green light to defend against co-employee liability claims by filing dispositive motions by making plain that whether a co-employee owes a duty to an injured fellow worker is purely a question of law for the trial court to decide in the first instance.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Peters also went a long way to rein in co-employee liability claims. The Court reaffirmed the longstanding rule in Missouri that a co-employee cannot be charged with liability for carrying out the employer’s non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace, brushing aside the common argument presented by claimants that the Workers’ Compensation Law does not provide for co-employee immunity. The Court explained that while no such immunity exists following the 2005 amendment, to support a common-law tort claim against a co-employee, the plaintiff must show “something more,” namely, that the co-employee owed a duty to the injured worker absent the employment relationship and separate and apart from the employer’s non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace. Thus, in Peters, the Supreme Court held that since the injured worker’s allegations addressed whether the employer’s standard operating procedures were safe and involved the employer’s non-delegable duty, the worker’s claim against his supervisor failed as a matter of law.
With its Peters decision, the Supreme Court also decided a second co-employee liability case, Parr v. Breeden, No. SC94393 (Mo., June 7, 2016), a case in which the plaintiffs brought a common-law tort claim against their decedent’s supervisors, alleging they were aware that the decedent had a medical condition that made it unsafe for him to drive, but they allowed him to drive his tractor-trailer regardless. The plaintiffs argued that federal regulations imposed a personal duty of care on the supervisors to prevent their decedent from driving. While the Supreme Court acknowledged that the regulations created a duty, the Court held the duty fell under the employer’s non-delegable duty to provide a safe workplace and, therefore, the plaintiffs’ wrongful death claim failed as a matter of law.
The Supreme Court’s decisions leave for another day other aspects of Missouri co-employee liability law. In 2012, the Missouri General Assembly amended Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.120 with the objective of limiting co-employee liability claims to those involving affirmative acts of negligence. The Supreme Court declined to comment on the 2012 amendment, holding only that no such requirement will be applied to causes of action accruing before the amendment. Thus, nature and extent of co-employee liability under the 2012 amendment will be a matter for future litigation.
The two opinions may be accessed from the Supreme Court’s website by clicking here.