Halsey v. Townsend Tree Serv. Co., SD 36658

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtGARY W. LYNCH, J.
Citation626 S.W.3d 788
Parties Andrew HALSEY and Tammy Kennedy, Appellants, v. TOWNSEND TREE SERVICE COMPANY, LLC, Respondent.
Docket NumberNo. SD 36658,SD 36658
Decision Date20 April 2021

626 S.W.3d 788

Andrew HALSEY and Tammy Kennedy, Appellants,
v.
TOWNSEND TREE SERVICE COMPANY, LLC, Respondent.

No. SD 36658

Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Division Two.

FILED: April 20, 2021
Motion for Rehearing and/or Application for Transfer Denied May 3, 2021
Application for Transfer Denied August 31, 2021


Appellants’ attorneys: Kirk R. Presley and Sean M. Brown, Kansas City.

Respondent's attorneys: George P. Coughlin and Matthew W. Geary, Kansas City.

GARY W. LYNCH, J.

Andrew Halsey and Tammy Kennedy ("Parents") appeal the award of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission ("Commission"), which was based on findings that the death of their son, Tyler Halsey ("Employee"), was caused by a compensable "injury" by "accident" as those terms are defined by Missouri's Workers’ Compensation Law. See section 287.020.1 Parents challenge the compensable "injury" finding in three points and challenge the "accident" finding in one point. Finding no reversible error as alleged in any of Parents’ points, we affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

The following facts are undisputed. On Tuesday, July 19, 2016, Employee began his employment with Townsend Tree Service Company, LLC ("Employer"). On that day and the three days that followed, Employee worked approximately ten hours a day outdoors in and around Poplar Bluff, Missouri. At 2:00 p.m. on Friday, July 22, 2016, "one of the hottest days of the year in Southeast Missouri[,]" the heat index was approximately 114 degrees. Around 4:00 p.m., Employee "was asked to collect some caution signs and, in the process of doing so, he passed out." Following a 9-1-1 call, Employee was diagnosed with heat stroke and was hospitalized. He died the following day, and hyperthermia was given as his official cause of death. At the time of his death, Employee was 23 years old, 6’1" in height, and weighed approximately 300 pounds.

While engaged in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Parents against Employer and others, Parents filed a "Claim for Compensation" with the Division of Workers’ Compensation. Parents conceded in their filing, however, that they were not making a claim for workers’ compensation. Their allegations and claims, instead, were stated as follows:

A civil case was litigated in the United States District Court – Eastern District of Missouri (Case No. 1:17-CV-00004) with [Employee]’s parents as plaintiffs and [Employer] and its parent company as defendants. The Court dismissed the case without prejudice ... on jurisdictional grounds, finding that the issue of whether a compensable injury occurred must be decided by the Commission. A compensable injury did NOT occur. Three medical doctors diagnosed [Employee] as morbidly obese, and the ER doctor who treated him testified in a deposition that the obesity contributed to cause his death. Plaintiffs’ and Defendants’ causation experts both agreed. Because obesity is an idiopathic condition under Mo. Rev. Stat. 287.020.3(3) which directly or indirectly contributed to [Employee]’s death, the injury is not compensable.

TO BE CLEAR – Plaintiffs filed solely for a factual determination by the Division
626 S.W.3d 792
.... Claimants deny that this is a compensable event and deny that this was an accident or injury that would be entitled to workers[’] compensation by law.

(Emphasis added.)

Employer filed a response in which it disputed that obesity is an idiopathic condition and affirmatively argued that Employee's death qualified for and was covered by the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation. Employer alleged that the amount of workers’ compensation owed—covering Employee's medical and funeral expenses—had already been paid.

An evidentiary hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") at which no in-person witness testified but various exhibits were received into evidence, including depositions and reports. As identified by the ALJ in her final award, the contested issues in need of resolution were as follows:

1. Accident: Whether on or about July 22, 2016, the employee sustained an accident or occupational disease arising out of and in the course of his employment.

2. Medical Causation: Was Employee's injury and death medically causally related to an accident?

3. Idiopathic Involvement: There is a dispute as to whether obesity contributed directly or indirectly to Employee's death and whether obesity qualifies as an idiopathic condition.

4. Compensability: Whether the claim is compensable under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Law.

In addressing the contested issues, the ALJ made the following findings of fact: (1) "Employee sustained an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment on July 22, 2016"; (2) "Employee's work accident on July 22, 2016 was the prevailing factor in causing Employee's heat stroke and ultimate death"; (3) "Employee's obesity does not qualify as an idiopathic condition under Chapter 287"; and (4) "Employee's claim herein is compensable under Chapter 287."

In support of her findings of fact addressing whether obesity qualifies as an idiopathic condition, the ALJ made two related conclusions of law. First, the ALJ concluded that "in order for an idiopathic condition to qualify for the current workers’ compensation exception, the employee's injury must be entirely idiopathic in nature such that no other factor precipitates the injury." Second, the ALJ cited Ahern v. P & H, LLC , 254 S.W.3d 129, 133 (Mo. App. 2008), and concluded that, unlike the situation in that case, "[o]besity ... does not cause any uncontrolled change in an employee's behavior by itself."

Parents filed an application for review with the Commission, which ultimately issued its final award in a supplemental opinion allowing compensation and affirming the ALJ's decision. In its supplemental opinion, the Commission stated as follows:

We find, as a factual matter, that while employee's obesity may have contributed to his heat stroke and resulting collapse and death, his work outside as a laborer in extremely hot weather on July 22, 2016, constituted an unexpected traumatic event or an unusual strain and was the prevailing factor in causing both employee's heat stroke and resulting collapse and death. We note that the exclusion from category of compensable injuries of an injury resulting directly or indirectly from idiopathic causes is in the nature of an affirmative defense to the employer and is not the employee's burden to prove. Gleason v. Treasurer of the State , 455 S.W.3d 494, 502 (Mo. App. 2015).

We affirm the administrative law judge's finding that employee's heat stroke and
626 S.W.3d 793
death arose out of and in the course of employee's employment with employer and, accordingly, is compensable under Chapter 287.

This clarification of the administrative law judge's award does not detract from her correct analysis of the evidence in the record or her ultimate legal conclusions.

The Commission incorporated the ALJ's decision into its award to the extent it was not inconsistent with its supplemental opinion.

This appeal timely followed. Additional relevant facts are provided in our discussion of Parents’ four points relied on. For ease of analysis, we first address their fourth point and then address together their first three points, albeit in reverse order.

Standard of Review

"This Court may modify, reverse, remand, or set aside the Commission's decision only when: (1) the Commission acted ultra vires ; (2) the decision was procured fraudulently; (3) the facts found by the Commission do not support the award; (4) there was not sufficient competent evidence to support the award." Mantia v. Mo. Dep't of Transp. , 529 S.W.3d 804, 808 (Mo. banc 2017) ; section 287.495.1. The whole record must be examined to determine whether there is sufficient and competent evidence to support the Commission's decision. Hampton v. Big Boy Steel Erection , 121 S.W.3d 220, 222-23 (Mo. banc 2003). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Cosby v. Treasurer of State , 579 S.W.3d 202, 206 (Mo. banc 2019).

Schoen v. Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center , 597 S.W.3d 657, 659 (Mo. banc 2020) (footnote omitted).

Discussion

Section 287.120.1 provides, in pertinent part, that "[e]very employer subject to the provisions of this chapter shall be liable, irrespective of negligence, to furnish compensation under the provisions of this chapter for personal injury or death of the employee by accident or occupational disease arising out of and in the course of the employee's employment." (Emphasis added.) As relevant to Parents’ four points, section 287.020 provides the following definitions:

2. The word "accident " as used in this chapter shall mean an unexpected traumatic event or unusual strain identifiable by time and place of occurrence and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury caused by a specific event during a single work shift. An injury is not compensable because work was a triggering or precipitating factor.

3. (1) In this chapter the term "injury " is hereby defined to be an injury which has arisen out of and in the course of employment. An injury by accident is compensable only if the accident was the prevailing factor in causing both the
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