State ex rel. KCP & L Greater Missouri Operations Co. v. Cook

Decision Date13 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. WD 73462.,WD 73462.
Citation353 S.W.3d 14
PartiesSTATE ex rel. KCP & L GREATER MISSOURI OPERATIONS COMPANY, Relator, v. The Honorable Jacqueline COOK, Circuit Court Judge, 17th Judicial Circuit Court, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Nov. 1, 2011.

Application for Transfer Denied

Dec. 20, 2011.

J. Stan Sexton, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Kenneth B. McClain II, Independence, MO, for respondent.

Before JAMES EDWARD WELSH, P.J., JAMES M. SMART, JR., JOSEPH M. ELLIS, VICTOR C. HOWARD, ALOK AHUJA, MARK D. PFEIFFER, KAREN KING MITCHELL, and GARY D. WITT, JJ., and ANTHONY REX GABBERT, Sp.J.

ALOK AHUJA, Judge.

Relator KCP & L Greater Missouri Operations Company seeks a writ of prohibition directing Respondent, Judge Jacqueline Cook of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, to take no further action other than to grant its motion for summary judgment in the pending civil lawsuit, Monroe Gunter v. KCP & L Greater Missouri Operations Co., et al., Case No. 10CA–CV01079. Gunter alleges in the underlying suit that his exposure to asbestos while working for KCP & L caused him to develop mesothelioma. KCP & L asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment because Gunter's claims fall within the exclusive-remedy provisions of the Workers' Compensation Law, §§ 287.120.1 and .2,1 and must first be presented to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. We hold that Gunter's claims are not subject to the Act's exclusivity provisions because they do not arise out of an “accident” as that term is defined in the statute. The circuit court therefore did not err in denying KCP & L's summary judgment motion, and we accordingly quash the preliminary writ of prohibition we previously issued.

Factual Background

Gunter worked for KCP & L for thirty-four years before he retired in 1988. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February 2010. In April 2010, Gunter filed a lawsuit against KCP & L, sixteen manufacturers of asbestos-containing products, and various John Doe companies that designed, manufactured, distributed, supplied, used, or handled asbestos or asbestos-containing products to which he was allegedly exposed. In his first amended petition, Gunter alleged that he was exposed to asbestos during the course of his employment for KCP & L and that this asbestos exposure directly and proximately caused him to develop mesothelioma. He asserted claims against KCP & L on premises liability and negligence theories. In particular, Gunter alleged that, [a]s an employer and user of asbestos products, [KCP & L] had a duty to maintain a safe working environment, a duty not to expose Plaintiff to asbestos and a duty to exercise reasonable care so as not to expose its workmen including Plaintiff to unreasonable risk of injury.” In its answer, KCP & L asserted as an affirmative defense that Gunter's claims are barred because his exclusive remedy, if any, is under Missouri's Workers' Compensation Law.

Every defendant other than KCP & L was ultimately dismissed from the lawsuit by settlement or otherwise. KCP & L filed a motion for summary judgment based upon its affirmative defense that Gunter's claims against it are exclusively compensable in a workers' compensation proceeding before the Commission. In response, Gunter argued that, pursuant to the 2005 amendments to the Act, only claims arising out of an “accident” as defined in § 287.020.2 are subject to the Act's exclusivity provisions, and that his claims do not involve an accidental injury.2

The circuit court entered an order denying KCP & L's summary judgment motion. KCP & L responded by filing a Petition for Writ of Prohibition in this Court.3 We issued a preliminary writ on January 28, 2011, and set the case for full briefing and argument.

Analysis

Determining whether Gunter's claims are subject to the Act's exclusivity provisions requires us to interpret and apply the Workers' Compensation Law, Chapter 287, RSMo. The primary rule of statutory interpretation “is to ascertain the intent of the legislature from the language used, to give effect to that intent if possible, and to consider the words used in their plain and ordinary meaning.” State ex rel. Unnerstall v. Berkemeyer, 298 S.W.3d 513, 519 (Mo. banc 2009) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “The legislature is presumed to have intended what the statute says, and if the language used is clear, there is no room for construction beyond the plain meaning of the law.” State v. Sharp, 341 S.W.3d 834, 839 (Mo.App. W.D.2011) (citing State v. Thesing, 332 S.W.3d 895, 897–98 (Mo.App. S.D.2011)); see also State v. Rowe, 63 S.W.3d 647, 649 (Mo. banc 2002) (“When the words are clear, there is nothing to construe beyond applying the plain meaning of the law.”). We will look beyond the plain meaning of the words of a statute “only when the language is ambiguous or would lead to an absurd or illogical result.” Akins v. Dir. of Revenue, 303 S.W.3d 563, 565 (Mo. banc 2010).

I.

The Workers' Compensation Law distinguishes between two general categories of compensable injuries: (1) injuries by accident; and (2) injuries by occupational disease. The Act specifies that an “accident” “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.” § 287.020.2. “An injury by accident is compensable only if the accident was the prevailing factor in causing both the resulting medical condition and disability.” § 287.020.3(1).

On the other hand, “unless a different meaning is clearly indicated by the context,” an “occupational disease” is defined as “an identifiable disease arising with or without human fault out of and in the course of the employment.” § 287.067.1. “An injury by occupational disease is compensable only if the occupational exposure was the prevailing factor in causing both the resulting medical condition and disability.” § 287.067.2.

The only statutory provision which arguably bars Gunter from proceeding against KCP & L in the circuit court, and therefore the sole statutory basis for KCP & L's request for an extraordinary writ of prohibition, is § 287.120. The statute provides in relevant part:

1. Every 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 arising out of and in the course of the employee's employment, and shall be released from all other liability therefor whatsoever, whether to the employee or any other person. The term “accident” as used in this section shall include, but not be limited to, injury or death of the employee caused by the unprovoked violence or assault against the employee by any person.

2. The rights and remedies herein granted to an employee shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee, his wife, her husband, parents, personal representatives, dependents, heirs or next kin, at common law or otherwise, on account of such accidental injury or death, except such rights and remedies as are not provided for by this chapter.

(Emphasis added.)

Although the Act draws a clear distinction between injuries by accident and injuries by occupational disease, the plain language of §§ 287.120.1 and .2 limits those sections to injuries or death caused “by accident.” KCP & L acknowledged at oral argument, and in the trial court, that Gunter's claims do not arise out of an “accident” as that term is defined in § 287.020.2, although it argues that § 287.120's exclusivity provisions should not be strictly limited to “accidents” as defined in § 287.020.2. To the contrary, we conclude that because § 287.120 only denies Gunter a common-law remedy for “personal injury or death of the employee by accident, KCP & L's concession that this case does not involve an “accident,” as that term is statutorily defined, defeats its reliance on § 287.120.

The conclusion that the Act's exclusivity provisions are limited to injuries or death caused by an “accident” as defined in § 287.020.2 is confirmed by the Missouri Supreme Court's decision in Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans v. Department of Labor & Industrial Relations, 277 S.W.3d 670 (Mo. banc 2009) (“ MARA ”). Although MARA found the majority of the claims raised in that case to be nonjusticiable, the Court did enter a declaratory judgment as to the interplay between § 287.120's exclusivity provisions, and the definitions of “accident” and “injury” in §§ 287.020.2 and .3. Based on “a simple reading of the statute itself,” 277 S.W.3d at 679, the Court explained:

The definitions for “accident” and “injury” are utilized in the exclusivity clause and amendment of those definitions impacts the scope of the workers' compensation laws. By limiting those definitions, the scope of the act is limited. Any removal of certain injuries and accidents from the scope of the act also places the workers who have suffered those injuries outside the workers' compensation system, and they are no longer governed by the act.

... In other words, [the Workers' Compensation Law] is the exclusive remedy only for those “injuries” that come within the definition of the term “accident” under the act. ...

... [I]f an “injury” comes within the definition of the term “accident” as defined in section 287.020.2, then it is included within the exclusivity provisions of the act, and recovery can be had, if at all, only under the terms set out in the act. If the “injury” is one that is not included within the term “accident” as defined in the act, however, then under section 287.120.1 ... the injury ... is not subject to the exclusivity provisions of the act ....

Workers excluded from the act by the narrower definition of “accidental injury” have a right to bring suit under the common law, just as the...

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