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On September 13, 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals departed from well-established Missouri caselaw in holding that individuals may bring occupational disease claims through civil actions even though they may also have workers’ compensation remedies available for the same injury.  By its own account, the appellate court’s decision represents “a substantial departure from prior law.”

The plaintiff worked for KCP&L Greater Missouri Operations Company (“KSP&L) for thirty-four years before he retired in 1988.  He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February 2010.  In April 2010, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against KCP&L (and other defendants which were dismissed), alleging that it was responsible for causing his illness.  The plaintiff claimed that he was exposed to asbestos during the course of his employment for KCP&L, and that this exposure directly and proximately caused him to develop mesothelioma.  The plaintiff asserted claims against KCP&L for the alleged workplace exposure under premises liability and negligence theories.

KCP&L filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were exclusively compensable in a workers’ compensation proceeding before the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission.  In response, the plaintiff argued that, pursuant to the 2005 amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”), only claims arising out of an “accident” as defined in Section 287.020.2, RSMo. are subject to the Act’s exclusivity provisions, and that his claims did not involve an accidental injury.  The circuit court entered an order denying KCP&L’s summary judgment motion.  KCP&L then filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Missouri Court of Appeals.

The Missouri appellate court sided with the trial court and held in favor of the plaintiff.  The court noted that the only statutory provisions which arguably barred the plaintiff from proceeding against KCP&L on his premises liability and negligence claims were Sections 287.120.1 and 287.120.2, RSMo.—Missouri’s workers’ compensation exclusivity provisions.  These provisions state in pertinent part as follows:

1.   Every employer…shall be liable, irrespective of negligence, to furnish compensation under the provisions of this chapter for personal injury or death of the employee by accident arising out of and in the course of the employee’s employment, and shall be released from all other liability therefor whatsoever, whether to the employee or any other person. The term “accident” as used in this section shall include, but not be limited to, injury or death of the employee caused by the unprovoked violence or assault against the employee by any person.

2.   The rights and remedies herein granted to an employee shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee…on account of such accidental injury or death, except such rights and remedies as are not provided for by this chapter.

(emphasis added)

Importantly, KCP&L conceded that the plaintiff’s allegation that he developed mesolthelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos did not allege an injury caused by an “accident” as defined in Section 287.120.1 above.  However, the Court of Appeals recognized that prior to the 2005 amendments to Missouri’s Workers’ Compensation Law, Missouri courts routinely held that occupational disease claims were subject to Section 287.120’s exclusivity provisions even though such claims did not arise from an “accident” as statutorily defined.  But the court noted that the 2005 amendments materially modified several provisions of the Act, which prevented the court from relying upon existing caselaw.  For instance:

  • The rule of liberal construction of the Act’s terms was modified to a rule of strict construction;
  • The definition of “accident” was materially amended;
  • The standards for compensability of occupational disease claims were revised to establish a compensability standard independent of the concept of an “accident”; and
  • The 2005 amendments rejected and abrogated prior caselaw interpretations of the terms “accident” and “occupational disease.”

The court also made clear that the mere existence of a workers’ compensation remedy for occupational disease claims does not establish that the statutory remedy is exclusive.  Indeed, “[w]hile perhaps unusual, it would not be unprecedented, absurd, or irrational for the legislature to have provided repeat-exposure occupational disease claimants with a non-exclusive workers’ compensation remedy.”  The court further emphasized the long-standing principle that unless a statute clearly abrogates the common law either expressly or by necessary implication, common law remedies remain available.  This principle was not an issue, however, as the court held that the plaintiff’s claims for premises liability and negligence were “plainly not” precluded by Section 287.120 under the circumstances.

A copy of the decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals can be found here.