The Missouri Supreme Court weighed in on an important aspect of workers’ compensation law: Co-employee liability. The results were not good for injured workers.
Missouri Supreme Court Reverses Workers’ Compensation Award
The case is Brock v. Dunne.
What happened was pretty straightforward. Several manufacturing workers would feed a sheet of particle board into a machine. Rollers in the machine would pull the board further in as the machine applied a layer of glue to it. The workers would then collect the board on the other side of the machine.
The supervisor, Edwards, noticed that glue had gotten on one of the rollers. Edwards told Brock to clean it off using a wet rag and a brush. In violation of the company’s safety rules and the safety decals on the machine, Edwards removed the safety guard while the machine was running so Brock could access the rollers. The rag caught in the rollers and Brock’s thumb was crushed.
Brock sued the manufacturer of the machine under products liability law, as well as Edwards for co-worker negligence. Edwards died before trial and Dunne was substituted as a defendant ad litem.
A jury returned a $1.05 million verdict, which was reduced to $873,000 after Missouri’s comparative fault law.
The Missouri Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision and threw out the award.
Like many of Missouri’s workers’ compensation laws, the rules governing injuries caused by a co-worker were gutted by amendments in the past couple of decades. In 2012, the Missouri legislature changed Missouri Statute 287.120.1 to cover workplace injuries that were caused by co-workers.
The new statute makes co-workers immune from a lawsuit for injuries they caused in the workplace, unless the victim can show two things:
- The co-employee engaged in affirmative conduct that was at least negligent
- That conduct was done to purposefully and dangerously increase the risk of injury
The way the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the second element, though, almost completely closes this exception to immunity.
According to the court in Brock, in order to be liable for injuries they cause, co-workers have to act specifically to hurt someone. It is not enough that their conduct happens to make things more dangerous for others in the workspace: The conduct has to be done in order to potentially hurt others.
The court made this very explicit. In footnote 7, it said that acts that intentionally increase the risks of a workplace injury, but that are done for the purpose of increasing productivity, are still immune from liability.
This is outright disturbing. It means that co-workers are generally going to be immune from a lawsuit for negligence, unless that negligence amounts to what is nearly a crime.
St. Joseph Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at the Smith Law Office
Every month, it seems, Missouri’s workers’ compensation law gets tighter. Injured workers are left without adequate compensation to recover from the accident.