October 18, 2019

George P. Coughlin recorded two more litigation victories —-one in St. Louis, Missouri and one in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

The St. Louis case involved an accident in St. Louis between a bus and a motor vehicle being driven by John Willis. The bus was being operated by Shavonne Starks for her employer Go Ahead Bus Company.  Both the bus company and Starks were insured by Dysart client Ace American Insurance Company.  Starks and others were injured in the accident.  The insurer for Willis tendered its policy limits ($50,000) to all persons who were injured, including Starks, via an interpleader action.  Because the insurance amount received by Starks was considered insufficient by her, she filed a separate suit against Ace, claiming that she was covered under Ace’s underinsured motorist coverage, and that she was entitled to recover from Ace under that coverage for injuries and damages that were not sufficiently covered by the Willis policy.  The attorney for Starks argued that the underinsured endorsement provided by Ace was ambiguous, and that the underinsured policy coverage was $2 million.  Starks and her attorney demanded $600,000 from Ace.  Coughlin eventually filed a motion for summary judgment, therein arguing that the Ace policy precluded the underinsured claim because the policy expressly excluded liability coverage for a “fellow employee.”  Coughlin also argued that the Ace policy precluded the underinsured claim because the policy expressly excluded  liability coverage for an injury covered by worker’s compensation. The Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis, Missouri agreed and entered summary judgment for Ace.  Starks filed an appeal but that appeal was dismissed on August 21, 2019.

The Poplar Bluff case involved a wrongful death claim by the parents of Tyler Halsey against his employer and Dysart client, Townsend Tree Service Company.  Mr. Halsey suffered a heat stroke while working on a road crew for Townsend Tree in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  He died the following day.  The cause of death was hyperthermia. Townsend Tree voluntarily paid all the funeral and medical expenses.  The parents of Mr. Halsey did not file a worker’s compensation claim because the only damages recoverable by them via worker’s compensation would be the funeral and medical expenses, which had already been paid. Instead, they filed suit in state court in Butler County, Missouri against Townsend Tree. They alleged that the employer had failed to take precautions to protect the decedent from the dangers of heat exhaustion/stroke.  Coughlin removed the case to the federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri.  Plaintiffs then joined to the suit Townsend Corporation, the parent and owner of Townsend Tree, alleging that the two companies were both negligent.  The attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that their negligence claim against Townsend Tree was exempted from Missouri’s Worker’s Compensation Act because the decedent was obese, and that obesity was allegedly an “idiopathic” exception under the Act.

Following extensive discovery, the parties engaged in mediation.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys demanded $3.5 million from the Townsend defendants.  The mediation was unsuccessful.  Coughlin then filed on behalf of both Townsend defendants a motion for summary judgment.  There, it was argued that Townsend Corporation owed no duty to the decedent, and that plaintiffs’ claim against Townsend Tree was barred because the exclusive remedy for a death in the course of employment was provided by Missouri’s Worker’s Compensation Act. It was also argued that obesity did not qualify as an idiopathic exception under the Act. Judge Limbaugh granted summary judgment to Townsend Corporation and dismissed the claim against Townsend Tree without prejudice to enable plaintiffs to file such a claim as a worker’s compensation claim. Thereafter, plaintiffs filed their negligence claim against Townsend Tree as a worker’s compensation claim, arguing that the claim was not covered by Missouri’s Workers’ Compensation Act because the decedent was obese, and that obesity was allegedly an idiopathic exception to the Act.   Following the depositions of two medical experts, the case was tried in Poplar Bluff before Administrative Law Judge Maureen Tilley.  Coughlin presented medical evidence to establish that the decedent’s working conditions and extreme heat were the prevailing factor which caused the decedent’s heat stroke and resulting death. Coughlin further presented evidence and legal argument that the decedent’s obesity did not qualify as an idiopathic exception under Missouri’s Worker’s Compensation Act.  Judge Tillley agreed.  On July 31, 2019, she entered a 14-page ruling in favor of Townsend Tree, concluding that the Halsey worker’s compensation claim was covered by the Act, and that no compensation was due because it had already been paid by the employer.  As a result, the parents of the decedent are barred from suing Townsend Tree in court.

The St. Louis case is captioned Automobile Club Inter-Insurance Exchange v Starks v. Ace American Insurance Company, in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis, Missouri, case no. 1422-CC00456.  The Poplar Bluff worker’s compensation case is captioned Tyler Halsey v Townsend Tree Service Company, Injury No. 16-053905.  The Halsey federal case is captioned Andrew Halsey, et al. v Townsend Tree Service Company and Townsend Corporation, in the United Stated District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, case no. 1:17-CV-4 SNLJ.