Co-Employee Liability under Missouri Law
The 2012 amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Law sought to bring clarity to the scope of co-employee liability for work injuries. The exclusivity provision of the law now provides: “…every employer and employees of such employer shall be released from all other liability whatsoever, whether to the employee or any other person, except that an employee shall not be released from liability for injury or death if the employee engaged in an affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury.”
Despite the legislature’s efforts, however, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding the practical application of the workers’ compensation exclusivity. On June 7, 2016, the Supreme Court issued two opinions that provided some guidance as to what proof is required to bring claims against co-employees.
In Parr v. Breeden, 489 S.W.3d 774 (Mo. Banc, June 7, 2016), the Supreme Court held that the question of whether co-employees owe a duty to an injured worker separate and distinct from their employer’s nondelegable duties is purely a question of law. If the plaintiff’s evidence does not establish that the co-employees owed the injured worker a duty separate and distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe place to work (like the plaintiffs in Parr), the co-employees are entitled to summary judgment.
That same day, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against co-employees in Peters v. Wady Industries, Inc., 489 S.W.3d 784 (Mo. Banc, June 7, 2016). The ruling held that because the plaintiffs failed to allege any duty of care owed by the co-employee separate and distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workspace, their petition failed as a matter of law.
In Parr and Peters, the Supreme Court held that the question of whether a plaintiff has pleaded and proved a duty beyond the employer’s nondelegable duty is a question of law. The upshot of these decisions is that the courts should be left to determine whether co-employees can be liable to injured workers. Practically speaking, if a plaintiff does not plead or cannot prove that the co-employee owed a duty beyond the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace, that plaintiff’s claims against the co-employee fail as a matter of law.