Injuries and deaths that occur in the course and scope of a victims’ employment are generally compensable under state workers’ compensation laws. These laws have provision of “exclusive remedy,” which do not allow victims to pursue additional lawsuits against the employer or its agents.
In a case recently before the Missouri Supreme Court, plaintiffs tried to hold accountable the supervisors of a commercial trucker for negligence resulting in his death. Plaintiffs in Parr v. Breeden alleged that the supervisors’ negligence breached duties that arose from federal regulations – which were separate and distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe working environment to its workers.
Had the court adopted this argument, it would have opened the door for claims against individual co-workers and supervisors in cases where federal regulations were violated. However, that did not happen. The court ruled that defendants’ alleged negligence were part of their workplace duties, and the violation of federal laws did not mean there was a separate personal duty that was distinct from their workplace duties.
According to court records, the decedent, a commercial trucker, was killed in a single vehicle accident in 2008. At the time, he was employed by defendant Breeden, where he’d worked for two years. During that time, he was involved in three, single-vehicle accidents. The first occurred in December 2006. In November 2007, a medical examiner deemed him physically fit to operate a commercial motor vehicle and he was granted a two-year certification. Six months later, on April 11, 2008, he was involved in another single-vehicle accident. And then, little more than two weeks later, he was involved in a third single-vehicle trucking accident, in which he died.
Plaintiffs (decedent’s wife and young children) filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the president of the company and two other supervisors, a director of safety and a dispatcher. Plaintiffs asserted defendants owed a duty to provide a safe working environment and to monitor decedent’s physical condition to determine whether he was physically fit to drive a tractor-trailer and in compliance with regulations by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Defense moved for summary judgment, arguing they didn’t breach their duty to provide a safe working environment, but alternatively, plaintiffs did not have a valid cause of action because they failed to show defendants committed an affirmative act outside the scope of employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace.
In response, plaintiffs argued defendants had breached their duty to decedent by:
- Keeping him on the road without a medical evaluation following his second crash;
- Failing to determine whether a health condition contributed to his first two single-vehicle accidents;
- Putting decedent back on the road when they knew or should have known it wasn’t safe for him to operate a vehicle.
Plaintiffs noted decedent’s health report from 2007 showed he was overweight, he smoked and suffered severe coronary artery disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
Trial court granted summary judgment and the appeals court affirmed, though a dissenting judge certified the case to the state supreme court, which reviewed and affirmed.
State supreme court justices noted that while the accident occurred at work, they would not be precluded from pursuing a common law negligence action against decedent’s co-workers – if they could show those individuals owe a duty separate and distinct from their employment duties. In this case, the duties which they are accused of breaching fell under the umbrella of work duties.
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Parr v. Breeden, June 7, 2016, Missouri Supreme Court
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Grimes v. Family Dollar Stores of Florida – Trip-and-Fall Accident Lawsuit to Proceed, May 30, 2016, Florida Trucking Accident Lawyer Blog