Claim For Fatal Heat Stroke Barred by Missouri Ruling on Co-Employee Lawsuits

By Jim Sams | December 22, 2021

Tyler Scott Halsey worked himself to death trimming trees in 96-degree heat, his parents say.

They alleged in a lawsuit against his employer, Townsend Tree Service, that his supervisor did not offer enough water or rest breaks and disabled the air-conditioning in work trucks so there was no respite from the stifling heat and humidity of southeast Missouri on a mid-summer day.

Missouri employers aren’t required to pay workers’ compensation death benefits if there are no dependents, other than $5,000 for funeral expenses. Halsey’s parents hoped to get around workers’ compensation exclusive remedy by naming the supervisor, Jeff Alan Richarson as a defendant. Co-employee liability has long been a quirky area in Missouri law, resulting in conflicting court opinions that apparently gave the parents’ lawyers hope there was a fighting chance of collecting on a wrongful death claim.

A panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals dashed those hopes Tuesday, finding that the Missouri Supreme Court had closed the door on co-employee v. co-employee lawsuits for all but the most egregious actions in a decision issued Nov. 9. In Brock v. Dunne, the high court ruled that employees can sue only co-workers who intentionally cause injury or purposefully increase danger of injury. Otherwise the duty to provide a safe workplace falls solely on employers.

The 8th Circuit panel, reciting portions of the Brock case, said “‘there is no direct evidence demonstrating’ that Richardson ‘acted with the purpose to cause or increase the risk of injury’ and any inference he did so would be ‘unreasonable, speculative or forced.'”

The panel rejected other arguments made in the the appeal and affirmed a decision by the U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau that dismissed the parents’ lawsuit.

Halsey, 23, had worked for Townsend Tree for only four days when he became disoriented and passed out as he and his co-workers were packing up after a day spent trimming trees in Stoddard and Butler counties on July 22, 2016. Richardson said in a deposition that Halsey started speaking gibberish and then keeled over. He was taken to a hospital in Poplar Bluff and died a day later. The coroner determined heat stroke was the cause of death.

Halsey’s body temperature had risen to 108 degrees, the U.S. Occupational Safety Administration said in a press release. The agency fined Townsend Tree $12,471 for workplace safety violations. The agency said Halsey’s death was the 16th heat-related workplace death it investigated that year.

Richardson testified that he had worked for the tree service off and on for five years and did not receive any training on heat injury prevention until the week after Halsey died.

Townsend Tree Service paid $23,000 for medical and funeral expenses, according to court filings. Halsey’s parents—Andrew Halsey and Tammy Kennedy—filed a lawsuit that named Townsend Tree Service, its owner Townsend Corp. of Indiana and Richardson as defendants.

Missouri law clearly protects employers from lawsuits filed by their employees if they carry workers’ compensation insurance, but whether employees can pursue lawsuits against co-workers who are responsible for their injuries has been a murkier area of law.

Historically, Missouri statutes did not say that co-workers were immune from lawsuits, but the employer-employee relationship complicated the legal analysis of the duty that employees owe to other employees, the Supreme Court said in the Brock decision.

“Over the years, appellate case law applying these competing common law doctrines developed and evolved, attempting to delineate the basis for the common law liability for co-employees,” the decision says.”Unfortunately, this jurisprudence shifted and swung like a pendulum, causing confusion for litigants, employees, and employers.”

The state legislature added to the confusion in 2005 by adopting a law that required the courts to apply “strict construction” when interpreting workers’ compensation statutes. Afterward, trial courts began ruling that co-employees enjoyed no immunity for their role in causing workplace accidents.

The legislature amended the law in 2012 to state that co-employees are immune from liability for workplace accidents unless they “engaged in an affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury.”

It was not clear until the Brock decision was released last month exactly what that meant. The Supreme Court ruled that because Brock did not show his supervisor removed the safety guard for the purpose of causing injury or increasing the risk, his tort claim must fail.

The 8th Circuit said the same principle applies to Richardson’s actions.

The appellate panel also refused to allow the parents to pursue a tort claimagainst the parent company under a theory that it had assumed control over workplace safety protections at Townsend Tree Service. The panel said Townsend Corp. did offer advice on safety measures, but control was left up to Townsend Tree.

The panel also rejected a third theory that the parents’ lawyers hoped would keep the lawsuit alive. They argued that Halsey was not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits because the heat stroke that killed him was caused by his obesity, an idiopathic condition. Missouri courts have ruled that workers whose accidents are caused by an idiopathic condition are not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. For example, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that a carpenter who fell because of a stroke that was caused by a previous motorcycle accident was ineligible.

The appellate panel said any decision about whether Halsey suffered an idiopathic condition is best left up to the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. The commission decided in 2020 that Halsey was eligible for benefits.

Townsend Corp. has posted heat safety advice on its website. In a section devoted to safety tips, the company advises employees who work in the summer heat to protect themselves by drinking water frequently, working in the shade when possible “or even sitting in the truck and running the AC.”

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