While wrongful death claims commonly result from trucking accidents, motorcycle crashes, or car wrecks, wrongful deaths also happen at work. In 2005, the Missouri legislature made sweeping changes to our tort system, including major overhauls to Missouri’s workers’ compensation laws. During that legislative session, the work comp laws brought more claims within the exclusivity of the workers compensation doctrine, while shielding employers from tort liability, including wrongful death claims.
Often, investigation as to the underlying cause of a workplace death can result in a tort claim against third parties, including manufacturers of defective products and in some cases other companies and their employees hired by the employer.
Under Missouri law, some third party employees may be considered to be “statutory employees,” thereby preventing a workplace wrongful death work claim. Missouri statute 287.040.1 provides “any person who has work done under contract on or about his premises which is an operation of the usual business which he there carries on shall be deemed an employer and shall be fully liable under the Workers’ Compensation Law (Act).” While the original intent of this Missouri wrongful death statute was to designed to prevent employers from evading payment of workers’ compensation premiums by hiring independent contractors, the statutory employee rule also shielded employers from tort claims by statutory employees.
Under Missouri law, the party asserting the “statutory employee” defense under 287.040.1 bears the burden of proving the injured person was a statutory employee of the purported statutory employer. Missouri law defines one as a statutory employee if 1) the work is performed pursuant to a contract, (2) the injury occurs on or about the premises of the alleged statutory employer, and (3) the work is in the usual course of the alleged statutory employer’s business. McCracken v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, 298 S.W.3d 473 (Mo. 2009). While these three factors may seem relatively straight-forward, the reality is that they are not. In the past few decades, numerous Missouri courts have interpreted what constitutes an employer’s “usual course of business.” This determination is very fact specific and must be thoroughly investigated in each wrongful death case.
Because workers’ compensation claims severely limit settlements related to a workplace death, it is almost always advantageous for the family of a person killed at work to explore other avenues of recovery.
Our St. Louis wrongful death attorney can help you and your family determine the best approaches and advise you as to your legal rights on workplace death cases. Visit our page on wrongful death damages and our page on the Missouri wrongful death statute of limitations to learn more about your legal rights.