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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.











A couple of big firms start blogging about Missouri law

Most lawyers practice in small firms, which may be why most lawyers who write blogs are in solo or small-firm practices. Marketing consultants to the legal industry have been pushing blogging for several years, and now more attorneys from large firms are getting into the act. I’ve added three blogs written by large-firm lawyers to Read the rest of this entry

When you sue, you’d better ask for everything

Johnny Ray Chadd was the city administrator for Lake Ozark. City administrators in Missouri are always a vote or two away from getting fired, and Chadd was on the brink. On a vote to fire him in 2005, after he had served less than one year, the aldermen were deadlocked and the mayor cast the tie-breaking vote to let him go.

Chadd sued, claiming that the applicable Missouri statute and the city ordinance required the vote of a majority of the aldermen to remove him as a city officer. The mayor’s vote was irrelevant. In 2007, the appellate court ordered that Chadd be reinstated. He was rehired and immediately fired by the unanimous vote of the aldermen.

Chadd sued again, seeking back wages for the period between his first firing and the second, also alleging that he was wrongfully terminated. Apparently because Missouri law characterizes the employment relationship as at the will of the employer, Chadd alleged that his termination fell under the vague term “prima facie tort,” a legal theory that has never gotten any traction in Missouri courts.

The trial court threw out Chadd’s suit on Lake Ozark’s motion for summary judgment.

Chadd didn’t sue for back wages in the first suit, so he was barred from bringing up the issue now under the principle of res judicata. This principle means that courts will not consider claims that either were or could have been raised in a previous suit between the same parties. The trial court indicated that Chadd had been obligated make his claim for back wages in his first suit, where he was successful.

The prima facie tort claim also failed. Missouri’s at-will employment doctrine applies to situations where there is no employment contract for a specific term. A worker cannot win a suit for damages resulting from termination unless the termination violates some other statute, such as a statute protecting whistle-blowers or persons who are fired for filing workers’ compensation or racial discrimination claims, for example.  Calling a wrongful termination claim a prima facie tort doesn’t get around the at-will employment doctrine.

The Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment in this opinion, Chadd v. Lake Ozark.

Partition: not always an equal division of real estate

No house is big enough for two couples, my mother told me long ago. Especially when one couple pays for nearly everything.

When the non-paying couple asked the court to divide the house, a Missouri court left them out in the cold. They appealed, and the court’s decision in Hoit v. Rankin indicates Read the rest of this entry

Missouri’s weak commitment to criminal defendants: is there a solution?

The glum face of associate circuit judge John Waters graces the pages of the New York Times, along with photos of Jared Blacksher, who sits in the Christian County jail, awaiting a court-appointed attorney to defend him.

Judge Waters, whose chambers are in the Christian County courthouse in Ozark, Missouri, ten miles south of Springfield, ordered the public defender to represent Blacksher, but the public defender Read the rest of this entry

Whoops. Missouri Supreme Court releases man convicted in 1993 without jurisdiction.

The Missouri Supreme Court today ordered the release of Dwight Laughlin, who was convicted in 1993 of burglary and property damage crimes at the post office in Neosho, Missouri in State ex rel Laughlin v. Bowersox. You can read the briefs here.

At Laughlin’s trial in 1993, his attorney failed to Read the rest of this entry

Summary judgment reversed, no surprise, but in a collection case?

Baca, a chiropractor, sued the Cobbs for fees. The Cobbs answered that at least part of the fees were unreasonable, alleging that Baca jacked Read the rest of this entry

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