JEFFERSON CITY — One of the major economic development issues being pushed by Missouri business operatives stems from a complicated lawsuit that business interests say poses a financial risk to both workers and managers.
The case involves a state appeals court decision that held that the co-worker of an employee injured on the job can be held liable for an injury that arises from negligence. Business interests warn that the case could lead to increased financial liability not only for workers but also for managers and business owners for injuries that, in the past, had been covered by a state program for injured workers.
The case arises from an incident in fall 2007. Richard Robinson and Cheryl Hooker were performing street cleaning tasks as employees of Kansas City. Hooker lost her grip on a high-pressure hose that then swung and struck Robinson, causing blindness in his right eye. After the accident, Robinson filed a workers' compensation claim for permanent/partial disability benefits.
Workers' compensation is a state program funded by business assessments that provides medical and disability coverage for workers injured on the job.
Two months after settling the claim, Robinson sued Hooker, charging negligence and seeking compensation for "pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and other tort-related damages" that were not available under his workers' compensation benefits.
The Western District Court of Appeals concluded that the law protects employers from lawsuit liability but not co-workers.
The appellate court found that Hooker didn't get protection from liability for damages because she was Robinson's co-worker, not an employer.
"This language implicitly allows an injured employee to pursue civil remedies for claims against parties not covered by the Act," the three-judge panel wrote in its August 2010 decision.
The decision prompted a coalition of business organizations to call upon the legislature to explicitly include negligence by co-workers as an act covered by workers' compensation and, thus, excluded as grounds for separate, civil lawsuit for damages.
On the eve of the legislative session, a coalition of the state's top business organizations unveiled their proposals to improve Missouri's economy — proposals they said will not add to a budget deficit. Rather, the six proposals focused on issues the coalition said would not cost the state any money. Among the "Fix the Six" proposals, the group recommended restricting these liability lawsuit awards if workers' compensation benefits are granted.
"It is important because it is a precedent-setting case that threatens the, what we call, 'exclusive remedy' of work comp," said Dan Mehan, president of Missouri's Chamber of Commerce.
Mehan said the Hooker case took away that exclusive remedy, resulting in an increased number of lawsuits.
"If that is allowed to be the precedent now, then that is why we are committed to reforming that this year," he said. "It is a fix we need to make. It is not gutting the system or anything or denying benefits. It is clarifying that works comp is the exclusive remedy."
Some legislators said the 2010 court ruling allows for a kind of double-dipping against employers and employees, which was not the intention of the legislature when the workers' compensation system was amended.
"It is something that has to be fixed because the whole system falls apart," said Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton.
"Everybody wants to take care of those who are injured, that's not the question," Stouffer said. "You have to be able to get compensation to that system, though, and not be scouting the system and gold-digging, if you will."