For years, courts and employers understood that employees who sustain work-related injuries could not sue their employers or co-employees for negligence. Instead, under a doctrine known as “workers’ compensation exclusivity,” the only remedies available for such injuries were available via the Workers’ Compensation Act.
On August 3, 2010, however, the Missouri Court of Appeals announced in Robinson v. Hooker, No. WD 71207, 2010 WL 2998605 (Mo. App. Aug. 3, 2010), that only employers would be released from liability under the workers’ compensation statute. On September 28, 2010, the appellate court denied a motion for rehearing on the issue and the Missouri Supreme Court recently denied a motion to hear the case on November 16, 2010. As a result, injured employees may now circumvent the exclusivity provision of the workers’ compensation statute and pursue actions against individual employees. This decision has serious ramifications for all Missouri employers – and individual employees.
The Workers’ Compensation Act provides, at its core, that employers are responsible for furnishing compensation to employees for work-related injuries, regardless of whether the employer was negligent. In exchange, employers are exempt from any other type of liability that would otherwise be available as a result of a workplace injury, which includes injuries resulting from an employer’s negligence. Over time, Missouri courts extended this statutory immunity to other employees, absent exceptional circumstances. In addition, Missouri courts had held over time that the Workers’ Compensation Act should be broadly interpreted to ensure compensation to employees for work-related injuries.
In 2005, in response to calls for reform and the increasing premiums for workers compensation insurance, the Missouri General Assembly amended the Workers’ Compensation Act. These amendments instruct courts to “strictly construe” the statute in order to limit its scope and applicability and, as a result, reduce the burdens faced by employers. The decision in Robinson, however, only increases exposure and expenses for employers and their employees.
The facts in Robinson are relatively simple. Richard Robinson and Cheryl Hooker were cleaning streets for the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Hooker lost her grip on a high pressure hose that swung and struck Robinson, causing blindness in his right eye. Robinson settled with the City on his workers’ compensation claim for permanent partial disability benefits, but Robinson then sued Hooker for negligence. The trial court granted Hooker’s motion to dismiss, which asserted that, among other things, the Workers’ Compensation Act provided Robinson the exclusive remedy for his work-related injuries. Robinson appealed, giving the Missouri Court of Appeals an opportunity to interpret the Workers’ Compensation Act in the light of the 2005 amendments.
The appellate court reached a troubling conclusion for employers. As the court stated, under a strict reading of the statute required by the 2005 amendments, an “employer” is a person or entity “using the service of another for pay” with “five or more employees.” Further, the court noted that, generally, “a co-employee would not fall within this statutory definition of an ‘employer.’” Accordingly, because workers’ compensation exclusivity applies only to employers, the Missouri Court of Appeals concluded that nothing in the plain language of the statute indicates that other employees are exempt from liability along with the employer.
Now that the Missouri Supreme Court denied a motion to hear the case, employers should carefully consider the Robinson decision. Under this decision, potentially every workplace injury could result in a civil action against another employee or employees. This, of course, could have serious effects on harmony and morale among employees and their supervisors or co-workers. In turn, one potential implication of Robinson is that an employee sued by a co-worker might then name the employer as a third-party defendant, thereby eliminating any concept of workers’ compensation exclusivity for the employer. Further, if the Missouri General Assembly fails to address Robinson with a legislative fix, employers should begin assessing the adequacy of their current insurance policies and the steps necessary to protect at least supervisory employees from liability.
Employers should take notice of the decision in Robinson.Missouri employers have entered a brave new world for workplace injuries.