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Missouri Abolishes Co-Employee Negligence Liability

On July 10, 2012, in a positive development for Missouri employers, Governor Jay Nixon signed into law H.B. 1540, an amendment to the Worker’s Compensation statute that effectively prevents liability of individual employees for workplace injuries caused by negligence. The law essentially overturns a Missouri Court of Appeals decision that allowed such lawsuits.

The court of appeals decision that the General Assembly rejected, Robinson v. Hooker, 323 S.W.3d 418 (Mo. Ct. App. 2010), held that injured employees could bring claims against their fellow employees where a co-employee’s negligence caused the injury. Prior to that decision, the normal remedy for workplace injuries was almost always a Workers’ Compensation Act claim against the employer. Under Hooker, only employers, not employees were released from liability to injured employees under the workers’ compensation statute and injured employees could sue their co-workers for negligence. Because employers often would be involved in defending the co-workers, Hooker increased exposure and expenses for employers and individual employees alike.

Notably, the Missouri Court of Appeals recently held that co-employees cannot be liable merely for failing to provide fellow employees with a safe workplace, which is a duty of the employer, not the employee. More information about that decision can be found here.

Although legislative efforts to fully address this issue failed last year, this term’s H.B. 1540 essentially removes the potential exposure created by Hooker. The new law—which amends the relevant statute, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.120—provides that employees will not be liable for workplace injuries or deaths unless the employee engaged in an “affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury.” The new language suggests that employees will be liable only for intentional or obviously dangerous acts, rather than for actions that are simply negligent. The exception for intentional or obviously dangerous acts is one that was available even before Hooker. H.B. 1540 effectively returns us to the rule before Hooker and for most employees, the normal remedy for workplace injuries will be the workers’ compensation system.

Employers should note, however, that courts will still be left to interpret what constitutes an act that “purposefully and dangerously” causes or increases a risk of injury. This is of particular concern in situations where supervisors may instruct employees to disregard certain safety precautions. Additionally, H.B. 1540 is unlikely to impact pending cases against co-employees. It is also unclear how the law will affect cases not yet filed for injuries that have already occurred, or whether employees will have causes of action against co-employees for injuries that occur between the bill’s enactment and the date the law takes effect, August 28, 2012.