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Employment Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Employees: Yes, You Can Owe Duties To Your Co-Employees

March 22, 2017 | Megan Sterchi Lammert

In Bierman v. Violette,the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District, reestablished that yes, employees, you may owe duties to your co-employees that are separate and distinct from those duties the employer owes to its employees. The Court of Appeals reversed trial court’s dismissal of a negligence claim against a co-worker, citing this distinction. 

Plaintiff Bierman and Defendant Violette were co-workers at a bar and grill, who were working together when the Plaintiff was injured.  Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that she was injured after entering “a lofted space accessible only through the use of a twelve-foot, A-frame ladder” that was locked into place, which the Defendant knew or should have known the Plaintiff was doing. Then, while the Plaintiff was still within the lofted space, the Defendant unlocked, closed and moved the ladder for a time and then returned the ladder to the place where it was accessible again to Plaintiff.   Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant failed to properly secure and lock the ladder in its previous position when it was moved, causing it to collapse as Plaintiff descended down the ladder.  This resulted in injuries to Plaintiff after she fell, struck a concrete countertop and landed on the ground.

The Defendant argued that the claim against her was legally insufficient, because Plaintiff’s allegations did not “establish an independent duty of care owed by Defendant, which is separate and distinct from their Employer’s non-delegable duty to provide a safe workspace.”  The trial court agreed and dismissed the Petition, and Plaintiff appealed.  The Court of Appeals postponed oral argument, because then pending before the Missouri Supreme Court were two cases - Peters v. Wady Industries, Inc. and Parr v. Breeden, both of which involved the legal standards for pleading co-employee liability. 

In both Peters and Parr, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the decisions in favor of the defendant/co-employees where the plaintiffs failed to establish that the defendants owed duties to the plaintiffs that were separate and distinct from the respective employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace. Although the Peters and Parr cases were, on their face, unfavorable to Plaintiff Bierman, both Plaintiff Bierman and the Court of Appeals relied on aspects of the Missouri Supreme Court decisions to differentiate and ultimately reverse the trial court’s decision in favor of the Defendant/co-employee; thus, resulting in a different outcome that the Peters and Parr decisions. 

The Bierman Court, citing Peters and Parr, first noted that the 2005 amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Law gave immunity against tort claims for work-related injuries only to employers; thus, co-employees are not immune and remain at risk for such liability (i.e. plaintiff can pursue a common law negligence claim against her co-employees if her allegations are adequately pled).

In Missouri, a plaintiff asserting allegations of negligence must establish that:

  1.  the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff;
  2. the defendant failed to perform that duty; and
  3. the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

In Bierman, the Court of Appeals analyzed whether the first element, “duty,” had been adequately pled.  This question turned on what Missouri recognized as a duty owed by a co-employee to another at common law, versus what duty is owed by an employer to its employees.  “An employee is liable to a third person, including a co-employee, for breaching a legal duty owed independently of any master-servant relationship.” An employer, on the other hand, owes its employees certain non-delegable duties with respect to safety and the employer, by itself, is liable for the breach of such a non-delegable duty. Thus, a co-employee cannot be held liable for breach of an employer’s non-delegable duty, which the employer alone owes.  The duty owed by the co-employee must be separate and distinct from that of the employer.

What are an employer’s non-delegable duties, which cannot be separately imposed upon a co-employee?  The Bierman court set forth the following, based on Peters and Parr:

  1. the duty to provide a safe workplace, including a duty to ensure that instrumentalities of the workplace are used safely;
  2. the duty to provide safe work appliances, tools, and equipment;
  3. the duty to give warning of dangers of which an employee might be reasonably expected to be ignorant of;
  4. the duty to provide a sufficient number of fellow employees; and
  5. the duty to make and enforce rules for the conduct of employees to ensure the work is safe.

When does an employer not have a duty to protect its employees and, therefore, when can a co-employee’s duty(ies) arise?  As set forth in Bierman, “[e]xcept in the cases in which the employer is itself directing the work in hand, its obligation to protect its employees does not extend to protecting them from the transitory risks which are created by the negligence of a co-employee carrying out the details of that work.”  In other words, the distinction revolves around how the co-employee is carrying out the details of his or her own work.  For example, is a co-employee misusing equipment, such as a hose, where the co-employee uses the equipment in a manner that is not approved by the employer and causes injury to a co-employee?  Or is the employer allowing defective equipment to remain on the property that results in injury to its employees?).

The Bierman Court determined that the Plaintiff’s injury was alleged to have occurred because of the Defendant/co-employee’s negligent use and manner of handling the ladder (i.e. how the co-employee was carrying out the details of his or her own work) and not because the employer allowed a defective product to remain in use on the property (i.e. the workplace was not unsafe).  As a result, the duty alleged in Plaintiff’s Petition was found to be a separate and distinct duty owed by the Defendant/co-employee from that of an employer’s non-delegable duties to provide a safe workplace.  The Bierman Court further held that the negligence of the Defendant did not need to be the sole cause of plaintiff’s injury, “as long as it is one of the efficient causes thereof, without which injury would not have resulted.”  Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case back to the trial Court, allowing Plaintiff to attempt to prove her negligence claim against her co-worker.

The Bierman case’s final outcome is presently unknown.  However, this case does teach some simple, but important lessons for plaintiffs, defendants, and those in the business world:

  1. When a workplace negligence claim is asserted, language matters. The wording of a claim by a plaintiff, or a defense by a defendant, needs to adhere to the case law recently articulated by the Missouri appellate courts.
  2. Workplace safety is not just the employer’s concern.  Co-workers must pay attention and take reasonable, precautionary action to ensure the safety of those around them. 

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure: A Practical Guide to Reducing the Risk of a Data Breach

December 19, 2016
Most organizations collect and store personal or sensitive information about their clients and employees. Protecting sensitive or private information should be a priority for all organizations, regardless of their size.   Threats to information security arise from external and internal sources, and every organization must take a comprehensive approach to reduce the threat of a data breach.  In other words, strong passwords and secure networks alone are not a silver bullet.   
 
A common misconception is that data security issues mostly plague large corporations.  But studies show that smaller companies and organizations are targeted at least as often as larger corporations, because smaller companies may have less protection in place to defend against a data breach. 
 
Here are five effective and efficient steps that any company, large or small, can take to reduce the risk of a data breach:
  
  1. Access to confidential and sensitive information should be restricted: Limit access to sensitive data or protected information to those employees whose job function requires access to the information.
  1. Vendors must be screened: A vendor may have access to or handle an organization’s sensitive data as part of the service it provides.  The organization must ensure that the vendor: (a) has security measures in place to protect that data, and (b) is using the organization’s data for no other purpose than to provide the services for which the vendor was retained.
  1. Employee training and restrictions: Organizations should implement policies and practices to ensure data security, and train all employees, so they are aware of the organization’s rules and expectations.   For example, employees of each organization should be trained on:
    • the types of information considered sensitive or private;
    • correct procedures for storing and deleting sensitive information;
    • reporting of suspicious emails;
    • passwords (they should be strong, never duplicated, and changed frequently).
  1. Mobile Devices:  Organizations that permit employees to use personal mobile devices for business-related purposes should consider restricting the manner in which the devices are used to access the organization’s data.  For example, software can be downloaded on a personal mobile device which separates the business-related data from the personal data, and permits an organization to scrub the device remotely in the event the device is lost or stolen.
  1. Secure Networks and Encryption:  Organizations should encrypt sensitive or private data, utilize firewall protection in their networks, and ensure that Wi-Fi access is always secure and password-protected. 
Preventative measures may seem time-consuming and expensive to implement.  But a data breach could cost an organization millions of dollars in expenses and damages.  The cost an organization may incur in a data breach incident can be as high as several hundred dollars for each record that is compromised.  Even the most prudent and conscientious of businesses cannot guarantee it will never fall victim to a data breach.  But an organization is always well advised to continuously monitor its potential vulnerabilities and implement measures to reduce the risk of a breach, especially as technology evolves.      

Procedural Confusion: Should Parties Suffer When Circuit Courts Don’t Follow the Rules?

August 4, 2016 | Jacqueline Gebhardt

Three years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court, in Farrow v. St. Francis Med. Ctr., 407 S.W.3d 579 (Mo. banc 2013), handed down a decision concerning when and how an employer had to challenge an employee’s alleged untimely filing of a complaint under the Missouri Human Rights Act. (See our 2013 post on Farrow here.) Seemingly, the message of that case was that if the MHRA did not specifically rule on the timeliness of the administrative complaint, it was incumbent upon the employer to race to the courthouse, and seek review of the agency’s action, under Mo.Rev. Stat. 213.075.  Ever since, that decision has created consternation and confusion for practitioners, who hoped that this issue might be clarified in a Court of Appeals, Western District case titled Tivol Plaza v. Mo. Comm’n on Human Rights.

Alas, it was not to be.  Instead of tackling the issue of when and how a defendant in a discrimination case must challenge the timeliness of a charging party’s claim, the Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, reviewed procedural issues that arose in the circuit court and decided it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

In Tivol, a former employee brought a sex and age discrimination claim against Tivol Plaza in the Missouri Commission of Human Rights (“Commission”).  Pursuant to the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), a plaintiff has 180 days to bring its claim of the alleged act of discrimination to the Commission. After the Commission receives a complaint, it has 180 days to investigate the merits and issue a right to sue letter allowing the plaintiff to pursue a civil action in circuit court.  Upon expiration of the 180 days, and upon request by the plaintiff, the Commission must issue a right-to-sue letter even if the Commission has not completed its investigation.

The defendant, Tivol Plaza, argued that the plaintiff’s MHRA claim was not timely and asked the Commission to first dismiss all untimely aspects of the complaint prior to issuing the right-to-sue letter or alternatively to make factual findings for the circuit court’s review in deciding whether the right-to-sue letter was appropriately issued. Instead the Commission issued the right-to-sue letter indicating that they had not yet completed their administrative review and made no determination as to jurisdiction. Tivol Plaza then filed a petition for preliminary and permanent writ of mandamus in the Circuit Court of Cole County. The circuit court issued a summons rather than a preliminary order in mandamus and later dismissed Tivol Plaza’s petition.

The majority in Tivol held that the court did not have the authority to hear the appeal because the circuit court’s failure to issue a preliminary order in mandamus, pursuant to Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 94, prior to dismissing the case and instead issuing a summons, meant the petition was not determined on the merits and thus not appealable. Thus, the petitioner’s proper course of action would have been to file the writ in a higher court.

The majority relied on the Court’s 2013 decision in U.S. Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs v. Boresi, a case with a similar procedural history, where the Supreme Court exercised its discretion to consider an appeal even though the circuit court issued a summons instead of a preliminary order. The court noted that since Boresi, both the Eastern and Western Missouri Court of Appeals have decided the issue of whether the court has the authority to entertain an appeal in cases where the circuit court issued a summons instead of a preliminary order and both courts have dismissed the appeal.

Two dissenting opinions, by Chief Judge Alok Ahuja and by Judge Thomas H, Newton, argue that the appellate court should have heard the appeal.  Judge Ahuja disagreed that the petition was not decided on the merits  and suggested that Farrow had been wrongly decided and created procedural inefficiencies but states that the court is still “bound by the Missouri Constitution to follow Farrow unless and until it is modified or overruled by the Supreme Court.” Newton said that the dicta in Farrow is misdirecting andthat the case should be remanding to allow an evidentiary hearing in the circuit court.

As a result, there is still little guidance on when a defendant must challenge the timeliness of a claim made to the Missouri Commission of Human Rights and only seems to muddy the water surrounding procedural issues relating to petitions for writ of mandamus and when appeals from such petitions are warranted.  However, as it stands now, Rule 94 does not provide for the issuance of a summons after the filing of a petition for writ of mandamus and, if the circuit court issues summons, appeal from the judgment is subject to dismissal. 

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About Employment Law Blog

The BSCR Employment Blog examines topics and developments of interest to employers, Human Resources professionals, and others with an interest in recent legal developments concerning the workplace. This blog will focus on Missouri and Kansas law, and on major developments under federal law, and at the EEOC and NLRB.  Learn more about the editor, David M. Eisenberg, and our Employment & Labor  practice.

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