Missouri Workers’ Comp Case Reconsiders Depth of Liability Shield

Workers' compensation laws reflect a balancing of interests. In exchange for ensuring that everyone who is injured while working receives compensation, the amount of compensation available is limited and well-defined by statute. Injured workers do not have to demonstrate that they were injured as a result of an employer's negligence to obtain compensation, but in turn they are limited to workers' compensation as a remedy and cannot file personal injury lawsuits.

In Missouri this trade-off is codified in the Exclusive Remedy Doctrine, found at Mo. Ann. Stat. § 287.120. Under the statute, the rights and remedies granted under workers' compensation "exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee" arising as a result of injury or death, such as personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits.

Historically in Missouri this doctrine has been found to also exclude liability for coworkers or supervisors unless it can be proven that there was an affirmative act of negligence, known as "something more" under the law. However, in light of changes to the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act in 2005 which narrowed the scope of workers' compensation claims, this may no longer be true.

In Robinson v. Hooker, the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals held that a co-employee does not fall within the narrow definition of an "employer" as outline in the Workers' Compensation statute. Based on this determination, co-employees are not entitled to the immunity that employers enjoy.

If a co-employee or supervisor acts negligently and this negligence results in injury, the injured worker may pursue a legal claim. In Hooker, this meant that an employee who was injured when a co-employee lost her grip on a high-powered hose was not automatically barred from pursuing a legal claim against the co-employee.

This case marks a significant victory for the rights and interests of people who are injured while working. As a practical matter, though, a significant hurdle still stands between injured workers and fair compensation: insurance coverage. Even if a co-worker is legally liable for injuries and should be responsible for monetary damages, many workers simply don't have the financial resources to cover the costs of serious injury. Much of the time, compensation is dependent upon finding some sort of insurance policy that provides coverage for the co-employee or supervisor.

The available insurance depends upon the particular details of the accident and the injuries. Although most employers' general liability insurance policies have exclusive provisions eliminating coverage for injuries caused by co-employees, there may be a viable argument for coverage under Part B of the workers' compensation policy. At this time, it is not entirely clear if courts will enforce Part B of the workers' compensation policy to cover negligent acts of co-employees or supervisors.

Because this area of the law is still developing in Missouri, it is important that those who are injured on the job work with attorneys who have the knowledge and experience to handle both personal injury lawsuits and workers' compensation claims. Lawyers who practices in both areas will be able to offer sound advice for injured workers and ensure that all possible sources of compensation are properly considered. For more information and to discuss your legal options, speak with a Missouri workers' compensation attorney.