News & Events

Coughlin and Geary Successfully Defend Clients from $3.5 Million Wrongful Death Suit

August 30, 2018

George P. Coughlin and Matt Geary recorded a major litigation victory in August in a wrongful death case in the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

On July 22, 2016, Tyler Halsey was working his fourth day on the job on a road crew for Townsend Tree Service Co.  It is an Indiana company that provides vegetation management to the electrical power industry. The crew were trimming trees around electrical lines in and around Dexter, Missouri.  It was a very hot day; the heat index was 115 degrees. Around 3:30 pm, Halsey collapsed.  He was transported to a local hospital, where he died of hyperthermia the next day.  Townsend Tree paid all of the decedent’s medical and funeral expenses. The parents of the decedent did not file a worker’s compensation claim.  Instead, they sued Townsend Tree and the foreman of the road crew in state court in Butler County, Missouri.  They alleged that the company and its foreman had failed to take appropriate procedures and precautions to protect the decedent from the dangers of heat exhaustion/stroke.  Coughlin and Geary removed the case to the federal court sitting in the Eastern District of Missouri, contending that the Townsend Tree foreman could not be sued under Missouri law.  The federal court agreed and dismissed the foreman.  Plaintiffs then joined to the suit Townsend Corporation, the owner and parent of Townsend Tree, alleging that it and Townsend Tree were both negligent for not enacting appropriate procedures and protocol to protect employees of Townsend Tree from heat exhaustion/stroke.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the claim against Townsend Tree was exempted from Missouri’s Worker’s Compensation Act because the decedent was obese, and obesity was allegedly an “idiopathic” condition 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.  In May, 2018,  Coughlin and Geary 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’ claims against Townsend Tree were barred because the exclusive remedy for an employee death on the job was under Missouri’s Worker’s Compensation Act.  Later, federal Judge Limbaugh asked the attorneys for the parties to provide additional briefing on the jurisdictional question whether obesity qualified as an “idiopathic” condition under the Act.  On August 21, 2018, Judge Limbaugh ruled that the question whether obesity was an “idiopathic” condition under the Act involved a factual determination that should be made by the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. The Judge dismissed all claims against Townsend Tree without prejudice to enable plaintiffs to file such claims as a worker’s compensation claim.  The Judge granted summary judgment to Townsend Corporation, finding that it owed no duty to the decedent to provide him a safe work environment.

The case is captioned Halsey v Townsend Corp. and Townsend Tree Service Co., in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, civil action no. 1:17-CV-4 SNLJ.

Contact George Coughlin at gcoughlin@dysarttaylor.com or 816-931-2700. 

Contact Matt Geary at mgeary@dysarttaylor.com or 816-931-2700.