Resurrection of a dead remedy: bringing common law negligence back into employment law.

AuthorYoder, Amanda L.

Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans v. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, 277 S.W.3d 670 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).


    Prior to the enactment of workers' compensation laws (1) across the United States and in Missouri, many employees injured on the job were left with no redress. In 1921, less than 3,000 of the nearly 50,000 employees injured in Missouri received compensation. (2) During this time, an estimated 25,000 employees died on the job in industrial accidents but less than twenty percent of their families received compensation. (3) Those families that were compensated still had to bear the cost and delay of litigation. (4) In response, legislatures sought to protect employees from the risks of the workplace and transfer the burden of recovery for injuries from the employee to the employer by enacting workers' compensation laws. (5)

    However, with recent amendments to the Missouri Workers' Compensation Act (the Act), many feel that the employer can now push the risk of injury back onto the employee without bearing the financial obligations. (6) The 2005 amendments to the Act have significantly curtailed the ability of employees to file claims. (7) The original bargain struck between employer and employee that formed the basis of worker compensation statutes is no longer the same balanced exchange.

    The Supreme Court of Missouri addressed this issue and concluded that employees excluded from compensation under the Act now have another option--a common law negligence cause of action. (8) This is a considerable change to the entire statutory system that Missouri has operated under for almost ninety years, leaving both employers and employees in a quandary over how to deal with workplace injuries. Employees do not know which theory to pursue for compensation (9) and employers do not know how to protect themselves against claims of negligence.


    In Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans v. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (M.A.R.A.), the Supreme Court of Missouri considered a challenge brought by a group of labor organizations regarding recent amendments to Missouri's workers' compensation statute. (10) The case arose from the 2005 amendments, namely Senate Bill Nos. 1 and 130, which significantly changed key components of the workers' compensation system. (11) The most significant changes originated from the 2005 amendment's more restrictive definition of "accident," the heightened burden on employees to prove causation, and the complete denial of compensation for particular injuries. (12) These labor organizations claimed that the amendments violated due process, violated the Missouri Constitution's open courts provision, and lacked a rational basis for the reduction in benefits available to employees. (13) The labor organizations contested the constitutionality of the amendments as a whole in two counts of the complaint, challenged specific statutory language in six counts, and sought a declaratory judgment as to the rights of employees exempted from the Act. (14)

    The labor organizations claimed that the amendments as a whole were unconstitutional because they altered the original bargain of the workers' compensation law. (15) The bargain established that workers would surrender "the right to sue their employers at common law in exchange for lower but certain compensation, without regard to fault, in all cases of accidental work-related injury." (16) The labor organizations argued that if the rights originally established in the bargain were reduced, then the bargain was breached. (17) The organizations claimed the bargain was of a quid pro quo nature so that if "the legislature [amends the statute, it] must provide ... [protection equal to or] or greater than that provided in the original [Act]." (18) The plaintiffs argued that because the 2005 amendments restricted the definitions of "accident" and "injury," they, in effect, limited some types of injuries that were compensable under the original Act and completely barred other types of work-related injuries. (19)

    The plaintiffs further contended that diminishing the rights originally afforded by the bargain would deprive employees of life, liberty, or property without the procedural or substantive due process of law guaranteed under the Missouri Constitution. (20) This argument centered on the logic of the workers' compensation statutes comprising the exclusive remedy for injured employees. (21) In essence, the labor organizations argued that because the Act constituted the exclusive remedy for injured employees, the 2005 amendments were unconstitutional because they barred claims from both the workers' compensation system and the courts. (22)

    The Missouri Division of Workers' Compensation (the Division) countered that the Workers' Compensation Act was not quid pro quo and the legislature could amend the statutes at any time. (23) To support this, the Division noted that the courts have upheld previously amended statutes. (24) The Division contended that the legislature used a rational basis in amending the Act by limiting the types of injuries covered. (25) Moreover, the Division argued that even if the amendments violated some provision of the U.S. or Missouri Constitution, the labor organizations lacked standing to bring these claims because no actual person or group suffered injury. (26)

    The circuit court determined that although a labor organization could bring a claim on behalf of its members, the individual members first needed a justiciable interest. (27) A justiciable interest arises if the individual member has a legally protectable interest that is both adverse to another party's interest and ripe for judicial determination. (28) The circuit court granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of the Division as to the constitutional due process challenges to the statutes. (29) Moreover, the circuit court found the request for declaratory judgment as to the rights of those employees exempt from relief under the workers' compensation statutes to be non-justiciable; thus, the trial court also awarded summary judgment to the Division on this point. (30)

    Upon review, the Supreme Court of Missouri found that the labor organizations had legally protectable interests that were genuinely adverse to the Division on all counts. (31) However, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that because the plaintiffs could not show that any person had actually been injured by the Act's amendments, the constitutional and due process claims were not ripe for judicial review. (32) The court, however, did find the employees' request for declaratory judgment regarding the exclusivity requirements of the Act to be justiciable. (33) On this claim the court ruled in favor of the labor organizations, holding that employees exempted from recovery under the workers' compensation statute because of the amended definitions of "accident" and "injury" were not bound by the Act's exclusivity clause. (34) For this reason, the court held that these employees were entitled to pursue recovery for their injuries under common law negligence. (35)


    1. History of Workers' Compensation Laws

      Originally, the injury of employees while on the job was not a matter of public concern due to the close relationships between employers and their employees. (36) This changed as people moved from occupations in agriculture to manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. (37) More efficient processes in manufacturing brought about more complicated and dangerous machinery. (38) As a result of the employee-employer relationship, the employer assumed the duty of providing a safe working environment for the employee. (39) If an employee was hurt on the job and his or her employer did not voluntarily provide assistance with the cost of the work-related injury, the employee could pursue recovery only under a common law theory of negligence. (40) However, negligence causes of action offered an unsatisfactory avenue for providing relief to employees. First, employees had the burden to submit sufficient proof to show that the employer was negligent. (41) Second, even if an employee could provide sufficient proof of negligence, it was often difficult for employees to overcome the employer's three defenses to common law negligence: (421) the fellow-servant doctrine, (432) assumption of risk, (44) and (3) contributory negligence. (45)

      As the number of work-related injuries increased, the issue of compensating employees for workplace injuries became more of a public concern. Employers began contracting out of liability for employee injuries that occurred at the workplace, and this left employees without redress. (46) In Missouri, reports surfaced that employees were fairly compensated for injuries at work. (47) However, later studies found this to be unsupported. (48) By 1908, many states prohibited this one-sided approach and even extended an employee's claim to survive him in death. (49) This change in the law began a wave of new legislation that expanded the law to allow claims against managers and coworkers, limitations on employer defenses, extended periods of compensation, and additional types of benefits and treatment for injured employees. (50) Workers' compensation became one of the first "social insurance" programs extensively developed in the United States. (51)

      Unfortunately, the results of this initial legislation provided inadequate compensation to employees. (52) States instead began to follow a no-fault compensation model that originated in Germany. (53) When this no-fault system first originated, some states enacted the legislation as compulsory for all employers. (54) other states, however, allowed an employer to choose whether he or she wanted to compensate employees for work-related injuries under the workers' compensation statutes or remain liable under common law. (55) Under common law, an employer who was liable...

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