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Tag Archives: Missouri Court of Appeals

Workers’ comp reform requires judges to decide whether an injury was caused by work, not just while at work


Near the end of a workday, Jason Pope’s supervisor asked him to move a motorcycle to a showroom on an upper level of the dealership where Jason worked.  He moved the bike to the upper showroom, then tripped walking down the stairs in the dealer’s building. In the fall, he fractured his ankle, which required surgery. He was off work for nine weeks and needed physical therapy over seven months.

Jason filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was denied because Jason failed to prove to the workers’ comp judge that his injury arose (1) out of his employment and (2) in the course of his employment. Under Missouri workers’ compensation law prior to 2005, an employee injured while on the job was not obligated to prove these two factors. Under the old law, workers’ compensation was administered under “no-fault”  system, in which the employer was usually liable unless the employer could show that the injury was not real or was not related to employment.

After the denial of Jason’s claim, he appealed to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Commission, which is a special court that hears appeals of decisions of administrative law judges in Missouri’s workers’ compensation system. The Labor and Industrial Commission reversed the administrative law judge’s decision, ruling the injury to be covered by workers’ comp. The employer then appealed to the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, which issued its affirming opinion in  Pope v. Gateway to the West.

The 2005 changes to Missouri’s workers’ comp statutes took away the presumption in favor of coverage of employee injury claims. Part of the target of the “reform” was to prevent employers from paying for injuries that may have happened at work but which were not caused by the job. For instance, when an employee was walking across a parking lot and a “pop” occurred in his knee, the injury might not be covered by workers’ compensation, since it occurred in a normal life activity–walking–not as the result of a hazard or risk associated with the job.

In another situation arising after 2005, an employee was injured in a fall as she made coffee in a breakroom at work. Her medical records indicated that the employee’s shoes caused her to fall; the court held that the employee failed to prove that her injury was caused by a risk related to her employment.

The Western District framed the issue this way:

we consider whether Pope was injured because he was at work as opposed to becoming injured merely while he was at work.

The court sifted the facts that Jason presented, noting that Jason was following instructions from his supervisor to move motorcycles into the upper showroom. When he fell, he was on his way to check with his supervisor to make sure that he was done for the day. He couldn’t reach the supervisor without walking down stairs. His boots didn’t cause him to fall. His own physiology did not cause his injury. The court concluded that these facts  (and some others)

reasonably support a finding that Pope’s injury was causally connected to his work activity, i. e., a risk related to his employment as opposed to a risk to which he was equally exposed in his normal, non-employment life.

 

Before the 2005 amendments to the workers’ compensation statutes, the cause of Jason Pope’s injury would not have been an issue. The employer’s insurance company would have paid the same claim that it would have ended up paying, sooner though and without two appeals.

Policy should not be made on the basis of an isolated anecdote, such as this true story about Jason Pope.  As the number of similar cases accumulates, the workers’ comp insurance industry will be in a position to determine whether the 2005 reforms save money for employers and are of a general benefit to the economy. For now, there can be no question that the burden of the reforms falls on injured employees, some of them unable to work, and health care providers which are awaiting payment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A deed can be ambiguous, even when its words are clear


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi Berra, supposedly.

Judge Perigo did something similar in a boundary dispute case,  McLallen v. Tillman, arising on the Elk River in McDonald County, which occupies the southwest corner of Missouri. Like all streams in the Ozarks, the Elk River meanders through its floodplain, splitting and recombining, with seasonal floods shifting the arrangement of channels.

Several deeds said that the boundary of the property was a part of a quarter-section “lying North and West of Elk River.” The trial judge, taking the whole fork,  said that these deeds were not ambiguous, sustaining a motion for summary judgment.

The McLallens weren’t happy, because they thought that the eight acres lying between the north and south fork of the Elk River was theirs. Their neighbors claimed the same land. The McLallens appealed, claiming that the deed may be clear enough on its face, but that this language ignored the reality about the Elk River.

At that point, the Elk River splits into two channels, one carrying more water than the other. In 1984, at the time of one conveyance, the southern channel carried the most water. Sometime in the 1990s, the northern channel began to carry the most water. It’s safe to guess that one of the channels may even go dry during droughts.

The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, sending the case back for a trial. The basis of the reversal is that the appeals court thought McLallen’s deed, while plain on its face, had a latent ambiguity, one that could be discerned from facts outside the words of the deed. The trial court should have heard evidence about which fork of the Elk River constituted its northern boundary, to determine which of two plausible interpretations of the deed would prevail.

 

 

St. Louis firm handles $662 collection case in West Plains, loses there and again on appeal. Why?


As we all know by now, you can often follow the money to the answer. Sometimes the trail is faint.

A one-car accident in Howell County, which sits on Missouri’s border with Arkansas about halfway across southern Missouri, resulted in a 911 call and the summoning of the Brandsville Fire Protection District (FPD) and the Missouri Highway Patrol and an ambulance. FPD personnel arrived at the scene and assisted with first aid and loading Jerry and Nina Phillips into ambulances.

FPD personnel remained at the scene for a couple of hours, providing traffic control while the wrecker loaded the Phillips’ car.

The FPD sued the Phillipses for an unpaid bill of $662. The bill was issued under the FPD’s ordinance allowing it to charge non-residents of the FPD for services. These charges are authorized by Missouri statute. When the bill wasn’t paid Read the rest of this entry

HOA needs to get the owner’s name right to collect assessments


Whenever a homeowner association (HOA) gives me an account for collection, the first thing I do is verify the name in which the lot or unit is held. Frequently, the books of the HOA show owner as an individual or couple, often with a nickname.

Failure to keep track of the name in which property is held can defeat a claim for assessments, as shown in River Oaks Homes Association v. Lounce, a case that originated in Jackson County, Missouri.

The HOA obtained a judgment against Zeria Lounce, individually and as trustee of her living trust, for several years’ worth of delinquent assessments. Lounce appealed to the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, claiming that the trial court erred in finding her personally liable and in finding the trust liable.

The River Oaks covenants provided that assessments were secured by a lien against the lot assessed and were also a personal obligation of  “the person who was the Owner of such property at the time when the assessment fell due.” Fifteen months after purchasing her townhouse in River Oaks in 1993, Lounce conveyed it to her living trust, with herself as trustee.

Nobody paid the assessments after 2004, and the HOA sued Lounce in her individual capacity. After filing suit, the HOA discovered that Lounce had put the property in the name of her trust and added Lounce, as trustee, as a defendant in the suit. Because the covenant provided for the personal liability of the Owner only, the court of appeals reversed the judgment against Lounce, as an individual.

The court of appeals didn’t let the trust off the hook, stating that the payment obligation ran with the ownership of the property, regardless of whether the HOA was aware of the change in ownership.

Here are the lessons for associations:

  • Pay attention to the county records of ownership. The county assessors’ websites (in most counties in Missouri) are a fairly reliable place to look for the names in which property is held; the recorder’s office is the best authority, though not always the most accessible online. This is important for making sure the proper parties are casting votes in elections, as well as for collections.
  • Ask your collection agency or lawyer to confirm the owners’ identities when preparing liens, sending demand letters and filing collection suits.

Carelessness about ownership can result in the loss of the ability to collect, shifting the burdens to the paying members of the HOA.

 

 

Recording a real estate document gives notice, but lack of recording doesn’t?


By Missouri statute, the recording a document relating to real estate in the office of the county recorder of deeds gives notice to all of the contents of the recorded document (called an “instrument”):

Every such instrument in writing, certified and recorded in the manner herein prescribed, shall, from time of filing the same with the recorder for record, impart notice to all persons of the contents thereof and all subsequent purchasers and mortgagees shall be deemed, in law and equity, to purchase with notice.

Is lack of recording notice that something did not occur, even though it should have been recorded?

According to the Missouri Court of Appeals, in the case Warren County Concrete v. Peoples Bank & Trust and Warren County Title Company,  purchaser of real estate had no duty to check to see whether a release of a deed of trust had been recorded, even though the purchaser had provided the money to pay off the deed of trust to a title company that closed the transaction.

The purchaser claimed to have no idea that the bank had not released the deed of trust until four years later, when the purchaser received a notice that the bank was foreclosing on the property. A year later — more than five years after the purchaser closed its purchase of the property — the purchaser filed a lawsuit against the bank and the title company, alleging that they were obligated to record the release.

The bank and title company claimed that the five-year statute of limitations period had run for negligence and breach of contract, and the purchaser was out of luck. The trial court agreed.

The purchaser appealed, claiming that the statute of limitations only began to run when the purchaser became aware that he had been wronged, which would have been the date the notice of foreclosure was delivered to the purchaser.

In the appeal, the bank and the title company argued that the purchaser should have checked the recorder’s office after the closing to make sure that the release had been recorded. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s judgment, stating that the burden of searching the public records after the closing was “a duty we are unwilling to place on the purchaser.”

The Court of Appeals was probably influenced by the injustice that would result when a purchaser hires a title company to close a transaction and provides money to pay off an existing loan, but the title company fails to follow up to make sure that the lender receives the payoff and records a proper release.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion isn’t specific about the reason for the mix-up, but it looks like the bank recorded a release after receiving the payoff, but that the release described a different piece of real estate than the piece that purchaser bought.

Contract protects self-storage company from liability for roof leak


Surely, a self-storage company would be responsible for damage to stored goods if the storage company neglected its roof, allowing water leaks.

John Easley, who represented himself, found out that the not-so-fine print left him with damaged goods, a worthless insurance policy and a big disappointment.

When Easley placed his furniture in AAA Mini Storage, he signed the usual forms that state that the warehouse owner is not responsible for damages and that the tenant is responsible for insuring the stored goods against damage.

Two years later, Easley found that rain had leaked into the storage unit and puddled against the back wall of the unit, leaving his goods damaged by moisture and mold. He made a claim on his insurance policy. The insurance adjuster said that negligent maintenance of the roof caused Easley’s loss, which was an exclusion from coverage.

Easley sued AAA Mini Storage in small claims court in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and lost. He then took advantage of the Missouri law that allows losers in small claims court to have a new trial in associate circuit court.

This time Easley won. The judge agreed that the release of liability that Easley signed did not excuse AAA Mini Storage’s implicit obligation to maintain its roof. AAA Mini Storage appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Easley didn’t file a legal brief in the appeal, which may have been a mistake. The appellate opinion, Easley v. Gray Wolf Investments, agreed with the storage company’s legal argument:

Missouri law recognizes that a contract may eliminate liability for future negligence if the release is clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and in conspicuous language.

The appellate judges reviewed the release of liability and found it was clearly and simply written and that its language was conspicuous, since some of it was in all capital letters.

The appellate judges also found that Easley was “a relatively sophisticated party,” because “he was building a 2,613-square-foot home with a walk-out basement.” Is this wisdom or what? Wow, a walk-out basement!

Not all releases of future liability are enforceable. Lawyers, for example, are prohibited by the Code of Professional Conduct from entering into contracts that release them from liability for their future negligence.

According to the Court of Appeals, Missourians need to make sure that their self-storage contracts include a clause requiring the storage company to repair leaks in their roofs. If the storage company won’t agree to change its form just for you, you can haul your stuff to a different place, perhaps Illinois.

Glaize Creek Sewer District blows condemnation case, but gets new chance


At a condemnation trial, Glaize Creek Sewer District (in Jefferson County, Missouri, just south of St. Louis), didn’t put on any admissible evidence of damages to the Gorhams’ property. The Gorhams put on proper evidence of damages, showing that the value of their property after the sewer line was installed declined by $29,000. The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict of zero damages (based on an appraiser‘s unsubstantiated opinion testimony), and sent the case back for a new trial.

Two things are unusual about this case: Read the rest of this entry

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