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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Employee Allowed to Sue Employer for Negligence Resulting From an Occupational Exposure

Guest Blog by John R. Boyd

A Court of Appeals in Missouri has ruled that an employee, who became ill as a result of an occupational exposure to asbestos fiber, may sue his employer for negligence. The Court ruled that the limitations on recovery of the Workers' Compensation Act did not bar a claim where an occupational exposure occurred.

On September 13, 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri issued a very rare en banc opinion on a writ of prohibition allowing the employee's claim to go forward. The ill worker was exposed to asbestos, a known cancer causing agent, while working for 
KCP&L Greater Missouri Operations Company (KCP&L)  from 1954 to 1988 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2010. Mesothelioma is a rare, but fatal, asbestos related disease.

His claims against his employer, KCP&L,  relied upon premises liability and negligence theories. The employee alleged that KCP&L had a duty to exercise "reasonable care" in preventing an "unreasonable risk of injury."   KCP&L argued that the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act was his exclusive remedy, and sought summary judgment, which was ultimately denied by the trial court.

The Appeals Court held in its 7-2 opinion, that a strict reading of the  Missouri Statutes §287.020.2 and §287.120 defeated KCP&L's argument that the claimant's occupational disease was covered by the Act, and that workers' compensation was the employee's exclusive remedy available. The Court reasoned that the 2005 amendments to the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act required a "strict construction" of the Act. 

The exposure at work was deemed not to be a specific accident, but rather a continuous occupational exposure over 34 years. The Appeals Court differentiated the occupational exposure to asbestos from a specific accident that is defined as "an unexpected traumatic event or unusual strain identifiable by time and place of occurrence and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury caused by a specific event during a single work shift."

The Court's ruling opened the door for this worker and others who have been exposed in such a fashion to pursue a lawsuit against his or her employer directly, and not be constrained by the limited economic bounds of the Workers' Compensation Act.

This change in the law came about as a result of previous aggressive actions by business and industry to modify the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act in an to attempt to eliminate claims. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that when a pro-business Legislature deforms the law, and attempts to carve-out certain types of injuries from being compensable, they force such cases into the civil arena. Be careful what you ask for----you just might get what you deserve.

Following the Appeals Court's  ruling, an Application for Transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court was filed by counsel for the appellant's on 9/27/11. No ruling on the transfer request has been made by the Missouri Supreme Court.

State ex rel KCP&L Greater Missouri Operations Company v. Hon. Jacqueline Cook WD73642 2011 WL 4031146 (Mo.App. W.D.) (September 13, 2011)

John R. Boyd  is President of the Workers' Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG). He is the managing partner of Boyd & Kenter, P.C., Kansas City, MO, and is licensed to practice in Missouri, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit; and the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. He is currently a member of the Missouri Bar Association, the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association (Chairman of the Workers' Compensation Committee 2000-2001), the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA), and the American Association for Justice.