What Do You Think: Did Worker's Heat Stroke Death Show Supervisor's Coworker Liability?

27 Dec, 2021 Frank Ferreri


Cape Girardeau, MO (WorkersCompensation.com) – In a recent case that made its way up to the Circuit Court level, a supervisor’s questionable decisions may have led to a worker’s death.

But was it enough for the worker’s parents to have a successful coworker liability claim against the supervisor?

A worker for a tree service company experienced a heat stroke while working and died as a result. On the day it happened, the temperature reached 96 degrees. According to the worker’s parents, he was especially susceptible to heat stroke due to his physical condition and inexperience working outside in the heat.

The parents sued the company as well as the worker’s supervisor. In their case against the supervisor, the parents contended that he was liable for the worker’s heat stroke. According to the parents, the supervisor directed the worker to continue working despite indications of heat exhaustion, and the supervisor disabled the air conditioner in the work trucks, preventing the worker from escaping the heat. The court sided with the supervisor, however, finding that the parents didn’t have a claim against him.

As a result, the parents appealed to the 8th Circuit, arguing that there was a basis for co-employee liability under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Law. Under that law, an employee is not liable for an injury or death of a coworker if the injury or death is recoverable under workers’ compensation law unless the injury or death occurred because the employee engaged in “an affirmative negligent act that purposefully and dangerously caused or increased the risk of injury.”

The court explained that this standard required the parents to show that the supervisor owed the worker a duty that was separate and distinct from the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace and requires that the co-employee commit a breach of workplace safety that was so unforeseeable to the employer as to take it outside the employer's nondelegable duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace.

Did the parents establish the supervisor’s coworker liability for the worker’s death?

A. Yes. The supervisor directed the worker to continue working despite indication of heat exhaustion.

B. No. A safe place to cool off during a hot work day is within the employer's nondelegable duty.

If you picked B, you agreed with the court in Halsey v. Townsend Corporation of Indiana, No. 18-2908 (8th Cir. 12/21/21), which upheld the lower court’s decision that the supervisor couldn’t be held liable for the worker’s death.

According to the court, the supervisor did not breach a duty that was separate and distinct from the nondelegable duties of the tree company. The court explained that the risks of working outside in the July heat were foreseeable, and the worker’s job involved working outside for 10 hours a day, often during the hottest part of the day.

“It is reasonably foreseeable that a supervisor would be negligent in instructing an employee to continue work despite warning signs of health problems,” the court reasoned.

Additionally, regarding the non-functioning air conditioner in the worker’s truck, the court highlighted that providing a reasonably safe workplace and providing safe appliances, tools, and equipment was within an employer’s nondelegable duty.

Thus, the parents could not sue the supervisor individually.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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