Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Parr v. Breeden

Opinion handed down June 7, 2016

While driving a tractor-trailer during the course of his employment, Kevin Parr was killed after his truck was involved in a single vehicle accident.[1]  After the accident, Mr. Parr’s children and father brought a wrongful death action against three of Mr. Parr’s supervisors.[2]  The plaintiffs alleged that the supervisors breached personal duties they owed to the decedent that were separate and distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace for all employees.[3]  The circuit court found that the supervisors did not owe a duty beyond the nondelegable duties they owed Mr. Parr as his employer.[4]  The issues on appeal were: (1) whether the existence of a duty imposed by a federal statute creates a duty that is separate and distinct from an employer’s nondelegable duties, and (b) whether an admission of duty by a defendant is binding on a court where no duty would otherwise exist.[5]

I.  Facts and Holding

            Mr. Parr was employed by Breeden Transportation, Inc. ( “Breeden” or “the company”) from June 2006 until his death on April 11, 2008.[6]  During the course of his employment, Mr. Parr was involved in three single-vehicle accidents, the third of which was fatal.[7]
            After his death, the plaintiffs filed a wrongful death suit against the president of Breeden and two of Mr. Parr’s supervisors.[8]  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had a personal duty to provide a safe working environment to the driver by monitoring his physical condition to determine whether he was fit to drive a tractor-trailer.[9]
The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants breached this duty by: (1) keeping Mr. Parr on the road without a medical evaluation following his first accident; (2) failing to inquire into Mr. Parr’s health conditions that may have contributed to the two prior single-vehicle accidents; and (3) putting Mr. Parr back on the road when they knew, or should have known, that it was not safe for him to operate a tractor-trailer.[10]
Further, the plaintiffs alleged that these actions of the co-employees and employer were contrary to Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations, which require motor carriers, and the supervisors and managers who work for motor carriers, to ensure that drivers are safe to operate commercial motor vehicles.[11]   
Additionally, during a deposition, the supervisors stated that it was part of their job duties to be aware of any health conditions of the drivers that may affect their ability to operate a truck and to determine if drivers were otherwise safe to operate the vehicle.[12]
The defendants alleged that the duty to ensure the decedent was fit to drive the truck was not separate from the nondelegable duties of the employer, therefore they owed no separate duty to the decedent.[13] The Supreme Court of Missouri held the defendant supervisors owed no duty beyond that of their nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace, regardless of whether federal regulations purportedly create such a duty.[14]
II.  Legal Background
            In Missouri, workers’ compensation law provides employees that are injured at work with the exclusive remedy for injuries that arise out of and occur during the course of employment. [15]  However, the liability of a co-employee is slightly more complicated.
            In 2005, the Missouri General Assembly adopted amendments to the workers’ compensation statutes that effectively returned Missouri to the common law of co-employee negligence.[16]  Under the amended act, a co-employee could not be held liable for an employer’s breach of nondelegable duties owed to employees to provide for a safe work place.[17]  These nondelegable duties include: (1) the duty to provide a safe place to work; (2) the duty to provide safe appliances, tools, and equipment for the work; (3) the duty to give warning of dangers of which the employee might reasonably be expected to remain ignorant; (4) the duty to provide a sufficient number of suitable fellow employees; and (5) the duty to promulgate and enforce rules for the conduct of employees which would make the work safe.[18]
            The reasoning behind not holding co-employees liable for the employer’s breach of a nondelegable duty is that employees ultimately have little control over whether these duties are performed by an employer.[19]  However, these duties are not unlimited, and a co-employee may be personally liable to another employee when his or her negligent breach of a nondelegable duty causes injury or death.[20]
III. Instant Decision

            The issue in this case was ultimately whether a personal duty existed outside of the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe workplace. The Supreme Court of Missouri ultimately held that the duties of the employer and the supervisors to ensure that the drivers were safe to operate a motor vehicle was not separate or distinct from the employer’s nondelegable duties.[21]  The court reasoned, even though federal regulations place a duty on the co-employees to ensure the drivers are safe to be on the road, the duty is part of the employer’s nondelegable duty to provide a safe working environment for its employees.[22]  Because of this, the court upheld the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants.
            Additionally, the court found that while the defendant co-employees, in their answer, admitted to owing such a duty to Mr. Parr, they did not in fact owe a personal duty to the decedent.[23]  This holding explicitly overrules Richey v. Philipp, which held that an admission of duty is binding on a court.[24]
IV.  Comment

It is important to note that the court’s holding does not leave the plaintiffs with no avenue of compensation.  The plaintiffs in this case could still recover under Missouri’s workers’ compensation statute.  However, the court’s decision makes the federal motor carrier regulations somewhat irrelevant in this instance.  This is particularly significant if the regulations were indeed intended to create a personal duty for supervisors and co-employees to ensure the health and safety of motor carrier drivers, or if they otherwise created a private cause of action for drivers to utilize as an avenue for relief against their employers.  While some states have reached the same conclusion as the Supreme Court of Missouri, and held that the Federal Motor Carriers Act does not create a private cause of action that preempts the exclusivity provisions of workers’ compensation,[25] at least a few states allow for such a private action.[26]
For example, in Amerigas Propane, LP, the California court noted that the Federal Motor Carriers Act was not only intended to provide for the public safety, but was also concerned with the safety of drivers and employees of motor carriers.[27]  While the court emphasized the purpose of the act as it relates specifically to protecting independent contractors rather than employees, it nonetheless held that the Federal Motor Carriers Act does create a private cause of action for drivers that is not necessarily preempted by exclusivity provisions of the state’s workers’ compensation statutes.[28]
            Whether a private cause of action exists is significant in this case because it allows drivers and the families of injured drivers another avenue of relief in the case of employer negligence.  Further, as some commentators have pointed out,[29] if this were a case in which a third party were injured by Mr. Parr, and it was not just a single vehicle accident, it is likely that the injured party could recover punitive damages from the defendants in this case due to their decision to put Mr. Parr back on the road, given that he was involved in two accidents in less than two years and had significant health problems.  Forcing the plaintiffs to pursue their claim through workers’ compensation law extinguishes this separate cause of action, however.[30]
            While the court’s decision in Parr v. Breeden is in line with a number of other states in that it denies that the Federal Motor Carriers Act creates a private cause of action that is separate from Missouri workers’ compensation law, it has significant implications for employees of motor carriers.  Ultimately, the decision may undermine one purpose of the Federal Motor Carrier Act by making it more difficult for drivers or other employees of motor carriers to recover for injuries caused by an employer’s negligence, which the act arguably intended.
- Brandon Wood

[1] Parr v. Breeden, 489 S.W.3d 774, 776 (Mo. 2016) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 777.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] 49 C.F.R. § 392.1 (2016) (noting that it is the duty of “[e]very motor carrier, its officers, agents, representatives, and employees responsible for the management, maintenance, operation, or driving of commercial motor vehicles, or the hiring, supervising, training, assigning, or dispatching of drivers” to comply with the safety regulations).
[12] Substitute Brief of Appellants at 2, 16, 41, Parr v. Breeden, 489 S.W.3d 774 (Mo. 2016) (No. SC94393), 2014 WL 7642024.
[13] Parr, 489 S.W.3d at 777.
[14] Id. at 782.
[15] Peters v. Wady Indus., Inc., 489 S.W.3d 784, 789 (Mo. 2016) (en banc).
[16] Leeper v. Asmus, 440 S.W.3d 478, 483 (Mo. Ct. App. 2014).
[17] Id. at 484.
[18] Id.
[19] Id. at 440.
[20] Id. at 485.
[21] Parr v. Breeden, 489 S.W.3d 774, 778 (Mo. 2016) (en banc).
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] 259 S.W.3d 1, 14 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008), overruled by Parr, 489 S.W.3d at 780–81.
[25] See Tierney v. Arrowhead Concrete Works, Inc., 791 N.W.2d 540, 546–47 (Minn. Ct. App. 2010) (holding the Motor Carrier Act does not create a private cause of action for personal injury or death that is not barred by the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act); see also Craft v. Graebel-Okla. Movers, Inc., 178 P.3d 170, 174 (Okla. 2007) (holding the Motor Carrier Act does not preempt exclusivity provisions in Oklahoma’s Workers’ Compensation Act).
[26] Amerigas Propane, LP v. Landstar Ranger, Inc., 109 Cal. Rptr. 3d 686, 701 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010).
[27] Id. at 697.
[28] Id. at 702 (“Whether a driver is an employee of the carrier or an independent contractor under state law is not dispositive for purposes of summary judgment since the FMCSR pertains to both equally.  It is apparent that the intent of the Act and FMCSR is to protect drivers . . . and to hold carriers accountable for FMCSR violations resulting in harm to drivers, when no other recourse is available.”).
[29] Parr v. Breeden – Violation of Federal Trucking Rules Does Not Create a Separate Employer Duty, Chalik & Chalik Inj. Laws. (June 27, 2016),
[30] See Gambrell v. Kan. City Chiefs Football Club, Inc., 562 S.W.2d 163, 165–67 (Mo. App. 1978).