Earlier this month, the Missouri Supreme Court issued its opinion in Brock v. Dunne, —- S.W.3d —- 2021 WL 5217031 (Mo. Nov. 9, 2021). In Dunne, the court held that an injured employee’s supervisor did not act with a purpose to cause or increase the risk of injury and therefore was immune from liability under Missouri’s workers’ compensation statute. The court also held that the supervisor’s negligence could not form the basis for common law liability for the injured employee’s injury.
In Dunne, the appellee, Danny Brock, worked for a manufacturing company on its lamination line with Mark Edwards, a supervisor at the company. In April 2013, Brock, Edwards, and two other employees were using a laminating machine to laminate particle board. Despite Edwards’ awareness of the company’s safety rules and the machine’s warnings, Edwards removed a safety guard that guarded a pinch point while the machine was still running and instructed Brock to clean the machine. When Brock cleaned the machine, his thumb went into the pinch point and was crushed. Brock received work comp benefits for his injury and also filed a civil suit in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County asserting product liability and negligence claims against the machine’s manufacturer and a negligence claim against Edwards. Brock eventually settled with the manufacturer. Edwards died prior to trial, and Dunne was substituted as defendant ad litem.
At trial, Dunne moved for a directed verdict, claiming:
(1) Brock failed to make a submissible case of negligence under the common law; (2) section 287.120 released Edwards from liability because Edwards’ conduct did not constitute an “affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury”; (3) Edwards’ acts were within the scope of JMC’s nondelegable duties; and (4) Edwards did not proximately cause Brock’s injury.
Dunne, 2021 WL 5217031, at *2. The circuit court overruled the motion, and the jury returned a verdict in Brock’s favor. Dunne subsequently filed a motion for JNOV, which the circuit court also overruled. Dunne appealed, and following an opinion by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, transfer was granted by the Missouri Supreme Court. On appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, Brock argued that “the factfinder could infer Edwards acted with the purpose to increase the risk of injury to Brock simply from the fact Edwards intentionally removed the safety guard knowing [the employer’s] safety rules and that the machine’s manufacturer prohibited and warned against removing the guard during operation.” Id.
In siding with the appellant, the Missouri Supreme Court noted that under the plain and ordinary meaning of section 287.120.1, “immunity will shield a co-employee’s negligent act unless the plaintiff can establish the co-employee engaged in affirmative conduct that constitutes at least negligence and the co-employee must purposefully and dangerously cause or increase the risk of injury through that conduct.” Id. at *4. Accordingly, the court reviewed the record to “determine whether Brock presented sufficient facts to the circuit court to establish Edwards engaged in affirmative negligent conduct with the specific purpose to cause or increase the risk of injury.” Id.
In reviewing the record, the court found that there was “no direct evidence demonstrating Edwards acted with the purpose to cause or increase the risk of injury, and any inference he did so would be unreasonable, speculative or forced.” Id. at *5 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
As the Dunne court explained:
While the evidence would support a finding that Edwards acted outside the safety rules, this evidence merely demonstrates Edwards acted negligently, not that he intended to cause or increase the risk of any injury to Brock or others. The fact that an intentional act may increase the risk of injury to others does not unequivocally lead to the conclusion that the actor intended to increase the risk of injury. Absent more, a negligent act is, simply, negligence.
Id. Based on this reasoning, as well as the accepted definition of the word “purpose” under Missouri case law, the court held that Dunne was entitled to immunity under Missouri’s workers’ compensation statute and that the circuit court erred in overruling his motion for directed verdict and JNOV. Id.
The court further held that because Edwards’ conduct fell within the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace, it therefore could not form the basis of common law liability, affirming the rule that “it is the employer’s sole duty to provide a safe work environment, and a co-employee’s negligence in carrying out the duties assigned to the employee by the employer is not actionable at common law as a breach of a duty separate and distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duty.” Id. at *7 (citing Conner v. Ogletree, 542 S.W.3d 315 (Mo. banc 2018)). The court also noted that “[t]he dissenting opinion’s analysis would expand a co-employee’s duty to exercise ordinary care in the workplace into the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace, conflicting with this Court’s clear language and holding in Ogletree and other co-employee liability cases recognizing the broad scope of an employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace.” Id.