Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Miller v. Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission[1]
Opinion handed down June 30, 2009
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that a worker's injury, suffered while at work but not caused by the work itself, did not arise out of his employment and therefore did not entitle him to workers' compensation benefits.

I. Facts and Holding

The case was submitted on undisputed facts.[2] An employee of the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission ("MHTC"), Mitchell Miller ("Miller") was working on a road repair project in Pike County.[3] While "walking briskly" to a truck for materials, Miller felt a "popping" sensation in his knee.[4] He then felt pain in the knee, which turned out to be caused by "an impinging medial shelf plica."[5] Miller admitted that he did not need to walk particularly fast to accomplish his work; that he walked briskly outside of work as well; that his clothing, the road surface, and the particular job task were not unusual that day and did not cause any unusual movement; and that he sustained no other injuries aside from the "pop."[6]
Miller reported the injury to and requested workers' compensation from the MHTC but was denied compensation on the grounds that the injury did not arise out of his employment.[7] After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Miller's claim, finding that Miller had not met his burden to prove that he had a compensable injury that resulted from a work-related accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.[8] The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission adopted the ALJ's opinion, and Miller appealed.[9] The Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, ordered transfer to the Supreme Court of Missouri.[10]

The Supreme Court of Missouri noted that amendments to Missouri's workers' compensation law in 2005 had dramatically curtailed the scope of compensable injuries.[11] Because "[t]he uncontested facts show that the injury . . . did not arise out of employment," Miller could not claim his injury was compensable under the new statute.[12] Miller's appeal relied on pre-2005 case law for the proposition that recovery was allowed in situations where "work was a substantial factor in causing the injury."[13] The court found that Miller's argument would prevail if the case law he cited was still valid.[14] However, because the 2005 amendments specifically abrogated the case cited by Miller, the Supreme Court of Missouri denied his claim for relief.[15] In dissent, Judge Teitelman disagreed with the majority, arguing that Miller's injury was specific to his job duties as a highway construction supervisor.[16]

II. Legal Background

A. The 2005 Amendments to Missouri's Workers' Compensation Law

In 2005, Missouri amended its workers' compensation laws to restrict the types of injuries that were compensable by the state.[17] Specifically, the state narrowed the definition of "accident," no longer compensating injuries that solely because they were "clearly work related."[18] The state further amended the definition of "injury" to compensate only those injuries for which work was a "prevailing factor,"[19] rather than only a "substantial factor."[20] Injuries no longer are compensable if they came "from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have equally been exposed outside of . . . the employment."[21]

In addition to these definitional changes, Missouri's workers' compensation laws were also given interpretive changes. Prior to the 2005 amendments, the statute required that ALJs, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, and judges construe the workers' compensation laws liberally and in favor of the injured worker.[22] The 2005 amendments changed Section 287.800, requiring all agencies and judges to construe the provisions strictly "without giving the benefit of the doubt to any party."[23] In addition, the legislature specifically voided past judicial cases interpreting the law: "[I]t is the intent of the legislature to reject and abrogate earlier case law interpretations" of several important definitions, including several named cases.[24]

B. Miller's Claim Falls Short

Prior to the 2005 amendments, Miller's claim would have almost certainly been successful. In Bennett v. Columbia Health Care,[25] a case Miller cited, the plaintiff felt her knee "pop" as she “walked" at work, much like Miller did.[26] The Missouri Court of Appeals found that the injury, caused only by walking, arose out of the plaintiff's employment.[27] Discussing Miller's case, the Supreme Court of Missouri noted that, under Bennett, "Mr. Miller would be entitled to compensation."[28] However, Bennett was one of the three cases abrogated by name in the 2005 amendments to Section 287.020.10: "[I]t is the intent of the legislature to reject and abrogate . . . holdings in: Bennett v. Columbia Health Care . . . , [two additional cases], and all cases citing, interpreting, applying, or following those cases."[29] Since Miller brought no other challenges to the 2005 amendments,[30] six of seven judges of the Supreme Court of Missouri found that the unambiguous meaning of the statutes precluded Miller's claim, as nothing about Miller's injury was brought on by his employment.[31]

In dissent, Judge Teitelman argued that Miller was not "equally exposed" to injury from walking at home, as Miller's "brisk" walking was far more likely to cause injury "while working on highways" than during "a recreational walk around the neighborhood."[32]

III. Comment

Although a cut-and-dry case of statutory interpretation, Mitchell Miller's case is an illustrative example of the impact of Missouri's 2005 amendments to its workers' compensation scheme. Whereas Miller would have likely collected benefits under the old definitions, new definitions and rules of interpretation mean injuries like Miller's are no longer compensable. Whether the changes are good policy is not addressed by this article (or case). Regardless, Miller's case is a notable example of the ability of the legislature to re-craft policy in one fell swoop.

- Cole David Bradbury

[1] No. 89960, 287 S.W.3d 671 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 671-72
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 672.
[6] Id. See also Miller v. Mo. Highway and Transp. Comm'n, No. ED 91671, 2009 WL 484517, at *1-2 (Mo. App. E.D. Feb. 17, 2009).
[7] 287 S.W.3d at 672.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] 2009 WL 484517 at *6.
[11] 287 S.W.3d at 672-73
[12] Id. at 673 (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.3(2)(b) (Supp. 2005) (internal quotations omitted) (injuries are not compensable if they "come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal non-employment life.")).
[13] Id. at 673-74 (citing Bennett v. Columbia Health Care, 80 S.W.3d 524 (Mo. App. W.D. 2002)).
[14] Id. at 674.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 675 (Teitelman, J., dissenting).
[17] Id. at 672-73; see also Ben Welsh, Workers' Comp Revisions Become Law, Columbia Missourian, Mar. 31, 2005, at 5A, available at http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2005/03/31/workers-comp-revisions-become-law/.
[18] 287 S.W.3d at 672-73; compare Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.2 (Supp. 2005) with § 287.020.2 (2000).
[19] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.3(1) (Supp. 2005).
[20] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.3(2)(a) (2000).
[21] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.3(2)(b) (Supp. 2005).
[22] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.800 (2000).
[23] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.800 (Supp. 2005).
[24] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.10 (Supp. 2005).
[25] 80 S.W.3d 524 (Mo. App. W.D. 2002), superseded by statute, Workers’ Compensation Law, 2005 Mo. Legis. Serv. S.B. 130 (West).
[26] Id. at 526.
[27] Id. at 531.
[28] Miller v. Mo. Highway and Transp. Comm'n, 287 S.W.3d 671, 674 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).
[29] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.10 (Supp. 2005).
[30] 287 S.W.3d at 673.
[31] Id. at 674.
[32] Id. at 675 (Teitelman, J., dissenting). Judge Teitelman's argument seems to rest on facts and generalizations drawn from outside the record: "The physical and mental fatigue caused by a hard day of physical work usually does not accompany a recreational walk around the neighborhood. Common experience teaches that one is far more likely to sustain injury when fatigued than when rested." Id. (emphasis added).