February 1, 2022

Dysart Taylor is pleased to announce that the Eighth Circuit upheld a judgment obtained by director Matthew W. Geary and retired director George Coughlin in favor of a vegetation management company in a wrongful death case that could have a wide-ranging impact in workplace injury cases in cases involving parent companies and co-employee liability.

This case involved the plaintiffs’ son who was working for a tree trimming company on a hot July day in southern Missouri. He suffered from heat stroke and passed away the next day.

The plaintiffs filed suit against three parties: (1) their son’s on-site supervisor, alleging that the supervisor was liable by directing their son to continue working in the heat and not providing air conditioning in work trucks; (2) their son’s employer, alleging that their son’s obesity was an idiopathic condition, which removed his death from the workers’ compensation law; and (3) the employer’s parent company, alleging that the parent company completely subsumed the safety functions of the employer. The Eighth Circuit determined that none of the defendants were liable to the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs originally filed the case in Missouri state court. At the outset of the case, Dysart Taylor removed the case to federal court alleging that the plaintiffs could not maintain a claim against the on-site supervisor, and he was fraudulently joined as a defendant for the purpose of defeating federal diversity jurisdiction. The District Court agreed, dismissed the on-site supervisor and retained federal jurisdiction.

After extensive discovery, Dysart Taylor filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that the parent company was not liable because it did not completely subsume or supplant its subsidiary/employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace and whether the son’s obesity was an idiopathic condition that removed his death from the workers’ compensation law was a matter that required determination by the administrative procedures established under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Law. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court in all respects. The court held the supervisor was correctly dismissed because the plaintiffs did not allege that the supervisor breached a duty that was separate and distinct from the nondelegable duties of the employer, and there was no evidence that the supervisor acted with the purpose to cause or increase the risk of injury to the plaintiffs’ son.

The Eighth Circuit also held that the District Court was correct in determining that the primary jurisdiction doctrine required the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission to determine whether the plaintiffs’ son suffered a compensable workplace injury. In the administrative action, Dysart Taylor obtained a decision by the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission that determined that the plaintiffs were not entitled to additional compensation, which was affirmed by the Missouri Court of Appeals. See Halsey v. Townsend Tree Serv. Co., LLC., 626 S.W.3d 788 (Mo. App. 2021).

With respect to the parent company, the Eighth Circuit looked to the Restatement of (Second) of Torts § 324A and determined that although the parent company promulgated safety rules for its subsidiary and the subsidiary did not have a safety department, the parent company did not completely subsume or supplant the subsidiary’s duty to provide a safe workplace.

The case was covered in a Law360 article, 8th Circ. Affirms Tree Trim Co.’s Win In Heat Stroke Death Suit. The citation for the 8th Circuit’s opinion is Halsey v. The Townsend Corporation of Indiana, 20 F.4th 1222 (8th Cir. 2021).

Geary has more than 20 years’ experience representing clients in a wide array of civil litigation. Contact Matthew W. Geary at mgeary@dysarttaylor.com or (816) 714-3030 with any questions.