I have a confession to make. Well, it would be a confession if everyone who knows me didn’t already know it to be true: I’m a workers’ comp geek. I recently spoke to a group of claims professionals, and I said, “If workers’ comp were a movie, like Star Wars, I’d be one of those people camped out in line waiting for it, dressed like, well, like a lawyer.” (I crack myself up sometimes.)
I read every case handed down by the Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court that even touches on the topic of workers’ compensation, not just to keep up on the law, but also for my lectures, presentations, speaking engagements, and to update my book. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years now (who knew), and the more I do it, the more interested I become in the nuances and background stories of the cases that make history in Missouri’s workers compensation system. I even surveyed colleagues at one point for a story on the “Top Ten Missouri Work Comp Cases” of the decade, or year or century (I don’t remember anymore) for Missouri Lawyers’ Weekly.
Picking that Top Ten wasn’t that hard. Every once in awhile, far less than once per year on average, a case comes along that changes the way that the MO WC system operates. The all-time champion for current practitioners is Wolfgeher v. Wagner Cartage, which re-defined what an constituted an accident according to Missouri law, and led to widespread legislative reforms in 1993 and again in 2005. MARA v. DOLIR is another case that everyone waited for with bated breath, and it wound up confirming the availability of civil courts to those cut out of the workers’ comp system by those reforms. The triumvirate commonly lumped together as “Drewes, Kasl, and Bennett” were abrogated by name in the 2005 reforms, and there are other examples sprinkled throughout the history of The Workers’ Compensation Law.
Now comes Young v. Boone Electric. Mr. Young had two accidents and two claims, one where he tripped over a dirt clod and another where he was climbing into his truck. By the time the cases got to the Court of Appeals, the first accident was no longer controversial: cases like Dorris v. Stoddard County and Scholastic, Inc. v. Viley had made it clear that, even though Mr. Young encountered dirt clods in his non-employment life, the fact that the dirt clod he tripped over was at a job site made his claim compensable.
It was the second claim that drew my attention. Mr. Young injured his shoulder pulling himself up onto his utility truck by grabbing rails attached to the truck just as he did on most, if not every, work day. There was nothing different about the way he used the rails or pulled himself up on the day he was injured, except that he was injured on that day by doing so.
The defense claimed that what had happened could not be an accident, as defined by The Law, since it was not unusual, and there was no identifiable external trauma that caused the injury. In response, the court made several key rulings. First, it settled a long-simmering (at least between work comp geeks) controversy by holding that the 2005 legislative reform language abrogating “Drewes, Kasl and Bennett” not only made the rulings in those cases null and void, but also wiped out every prior case, including Wolfgeher, in regard to what constituted an accident. With nowhere else to turn, the Court referred to the dictionary to find the plain meaning of the words of the statute, and found that Mr. Young’s action, routine as it might be, was sufficient to constitute a compensable accident, based on the injury he sustained.
There are many arcane details of the opinion that are mostly interesting only to work comp geeks, but the opinion itself has several notable features. First, it is long. There are opinions that are long, and there are long opinions. Some opinions spend many pages reciting the facts, or reciting prior cases, only to reach their conclusion somewhat abruptly. Young v. Boone Electric is long because it takes great care to explain its reasoning, forced adrift, as it were, from the support of prior precedent.
Next, and another reason for its length, is that the Court was divided as to how to rule. This wound up being an opinion of the Court sitting en banc, with every member of the court participating, rather than just one of its divisions. That alone is an exceedingly rare occurrence in Missouri workers’ compensation appeals other than Supreme Court cases. In Young, however, a passionate minority authored a dissent that was longer than the majority opinion itself, basing its reasoning on prior precedent that the majority had ruled was no longer applicable. One side effect of the disagreement between the members of the Court was many, many more, and longer, footnotes than I ever remember seeing in an appellate opinion on MO work comp.
When I was done reading, I was left with the conclusion that this was another Wolfgeher – a real game-changer in what is important in MO workers’ comp. The 2005 reforms were by all accounts intended to restrict injured workers’ access to the work comp system in Missouri. Young not only does not do that, it makes it clear, at least to me, that those 2005 amendments don’t do much when it comes to re-defining what we mean when we talk about work-related accidents in Missouri workers’ compensation cases.
I say “at least to me” because this, so far, is what I have found surprising: my colleagues on the other side of the bar are not up in arms about this result. The ones I have talked to and read have reacted to Young with a collective “Yeah, not so much.” Totally unimpressed. Here I thought we would be yelling, screaming and pounding the table, much less driving to the state Capitol to try to amend The Law (again) to reverse Young. But no. I seem to be the only one who finds this opinion to be of earth-shaking magnitude.
So, maybe it’s me, maybe it’s them. I like to say that I never know if I’m ahead of the curve or behind it when it comes to these things. Historically, I like to think that I have been mostly ahead, but this year, the legislature’s spotlight has been focused elsewhere. My colleagues have said that the result in Young was predictable and not unexpected, even logical. They said that about a case called Tillotson as well, and the jury, so to speak, is still out on that one, so far as I am concerned. We’ll see.