'Exclusively' confusing: who has jurisdiction to determine jurisdiction under the Missouri workers' compensation law?

Author:Kemp, N. Drew
Position:Case note
 
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Cooper v. Chrysler Group, LLC, 361 S.W.3d 60 (Mo. App. E.D. 2011)

  1. INTRODUCTION

    The Missouri Workers' Compensation Act (Act) was originally designed as a bargain between employers and employees by creating a no-fault, exclusive administrative remedy and by making sure more employees received compensation for their on-the-job injuries. (1) The Act also reduced litigation and transaction costs for employers, thereby lowering the cost of doing business. (2) In general, if an injury falls under the definitions set forth under chapter 287 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, then the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (Commission) has exclusive jurisdiction over the matter. (3)

    The Commission is the administrative body that oversees workers' compensation claims and it has the power to enact all regulations necessary for the efficient management and operation of the workers' compensation system. (4) In the typical case, when a workplace injury occurs, the employee must notify the employer and the Commission by filling out a "Report of Injury" within thirty days from the injury date. (5) If the employer and employee dispute whether the employer is liable under the Act, then the parties may request mediation, (6) or the employee may file a claim for compensation, which initiates a contested claim. (7) The Commission will assign an administrative law judge to hear the parties' case and determine whether the injury falls within the scope of the Act and the employer's liability, if any. (8)

    It is clear now that if a work injury is not within the scope of the Act, employees have a right to bring a common law action against their employer just as they could before workers' compensation was adopted. (9) In such a civil case, the employer may object by raising the exclusive remedy defense, which the Supreme Court of Missouri has held will be waived unless it is timely brought as an affirmative defense. (10) Because the circuit courts and the Commission are mutually exclusive in the eyes of an injured employee seeking compensation, a determination must be made as to which venue has jurisdiction over his injury.

    In 2011, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals summarized and clarified the issue of which court has jurisdiction to determine jurisdiction. After Cooper v. Chrysler Group, LLC, it is clear that a Missouri circuit court must yield to the Commission when the jurisdiction-determining issue is one of fact. (11) However, a circuit court can nevertheless review jurisdictional issues of law. An important question remains, however: will a circuit court distinguish between issues of fact and issues of law if an affirmative defense is not timely raised by the employer?

    This distinction between jurisdictional issues of fact and issues of law is important because failing to distinguish the two may result in inefficiency and unfairness. (12) Additionally, understanding the procedural jurisprudence regarding these types of parallel cases (13) is becoming increasingly necessary. For nearly eighty years, the Act was interpreted broadly to cover most injured workers. However, the 2005 amendments to chapter 287 significantly limited its scope, (14) and courts are still refining their interpretations of these statutes. (15) As a result, employees who normally would seek refuge under the Act may be surprised when they are kicked out.15 16 Similarly, employees seeking damages from their employers in circuit courts may be told that their claims belong with the Commission. (17) This has forced injured employees to seek remedies for their injuries on both fronts--from the Commission and the circuit courts--simultaneously. (18)

  2. FACTS AND HOLDING

    On March 2, 2007, while working as an assembly worker at a Chrysler plant in Fenton, Missouri, Kevin Cooper was injured when he slipped and fell near his workstation. (19) Just seven days later, he filed a Claim for Compensation with the Commission for injuries to his lower back and body as a whole. (20) As the parties contested liability under the Act, four years went by without Cooper receiving any compensation from his employer. (21) According to Cooper's counsel, Chrysler Group LLC's (Chrysler) managers had been warned that a machine near Cooper's workstation was leaking oil onto the floor and that someone might get injured. (22) While his workers' compensation claim was pending and with no resolution in sight, on January 11, 2010, Cooper filed a petition in the St. Louis County Circuit Court, Division Two, alleging that his employer's negligence caused his injuries. (23)

    As amended, Cooper's petition sought "damages on the same set of facts and for the same injury as that alleged in his workers' compensation claim." (24) Chrysler filed a timely answer to Cooper's petition, asserting the affirmative defense of exclusivity. (25) Cooper responded to Chrysler's defense by arguing that workers' compensation was not the exclusive remedy because the fall was not the "prevailing factor" (26) in causing his injuries, and the fall itself was not an "accident" (27) as defined under the Act. (28) The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Chrysler and Cooper appealed. (29)

    The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals first concluded that the trial court's consideration of "whether summary judgment [was] the proper remedy at this stage of the proceeding merit[ed] plain error review." (30) The court then found that the primary jurisdiction doctrine provided that issues of law could be determined by the circuit courts themselves but that questions of fact were solely within the jurisdiction of the Commission. (31) Finally, the court determined that because the issues in the case--namely, whether Cooper suffered an "accident" and whether his surgery was necessary--were questions of fact, the Commission had sole authority to determine whether Cooper could sue under a negligence theory or had to rely on workers' compensation. (32) The court concluded that granting summary judgment and leaving Cooper without any remedy (in the event the Commission determined that the Act did not apply) would result in manifest injustice. (33) Thus, the court held that when the applicability of the Act is at issue, questions of fact shall be exclusively determined by the Commission, and any civil proceeding will be stayed until such issues are resolved.

  3. LEGAL BACKGROUND

    The Act was created to remedy the harsh effects of inadequate recoveries for injured employees under traditional common law tort actions. (34) In 1921, prior to the enactment of the Act, it was estimated that about 25,000 employees were killed or injured each year in Missouri due to work-related accidents. (35) However, eighty percent of those injured were not compensated at all, and the other twenty percent who received compensation "had to bear the expense and delay of litigation." (36) As a result, on November 2, 1926, Missouri became the forty-third state to adopt a worker's compensation program. (37) By adopting the law, employers gave up their fault-based defenses under the common law in exchange for immunity from tort liability from injured workers. (38) Injured workers gave up their common law right to sue their employers for negligence in exchange for more certain, but limited, compensation benefits. (39) Specifically, injured workers (40) may be entitled to medical treatment, (41) future medical expenses, (42) lost wages, (43) and permanent disability. (44) Close family members of those who are killed on the job may be entitled to death benefits (45) and funeral expenses. (46)

    The original version of the Act required that "[a]ll of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed with a view toward the public welfare." (47) Early interpretation of this "liberal construction" provision required that where a question of jurisdiction was in doubt, it should be held in favor of the Commission. (48) Section 287.120, which sets out the scope of the Act, only applies to accidental injuries and has remained unchanged since its enactment. It states:

    Every employer subject to the provisions of this chapter shall be liable, irrespective of negligence, to furnish compensation under the provisions of this chapter for personal injury or death of an employee by accident arising out of and in the course of the employee's employment ... [and] shall be released from all other liability whatsoever, whether to the employee or any other person. (49) As such, the law was deemed the exclusive remedy for injured workers.

    A. The Revolving Door to Circuit Court

    The years following the adoption of the Act proved to be somewhat of a rollercoaster. The scope of the Act was narrowed, then expanded, and then narrowed again. Under the original Act, the legislature defined an "accident" as "an unexpected or unforeseen identifiable event or series of events." (50) In interpreting this definition, the Supreme Court of Missouri ruled that an "accident" only occurred when the worker's injury was accompanied by a slip or a fall or when the strain was unexpected or abnormal. (51) Thus, if an employee was injured as a result of the performance of ordinary job duties, compensation was not permitted.

    Eventually, plaintiffs succeeded in opening the door, albeit slightly, to the civil courtrooms. In Hines v. Continental Baking Co., the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals held that a worker who sustained certain work injuries not covered by workers' compensation could nevertheless bring a personal injury claim against her employer in circuit court. (52) In Hines, the plaintiff worked on an assembly line at a bread company. (53) Her job included removing loaves of bread from a conveyor belt, placing them on a rack, and moving the rack once it became full. (54) The plaintiff injured her back while pushing the rack to another location and subsequently filed a claim for worker's compensation. (55) After losing her claim on appeal...

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