Baker Sterchi recently obtained summary judgment in the Missouri Supreme Court for their client, despite the trial court’s initial refusal to recognize and hold that their clients were immune from civil liability. The win was accomplished through an extraordinary writ of prohibition sought from and issued by the Missouri Supreme Court, ordering the trial judge to reverse and vacate her original order and enter summary judgment in favor of Baker Sterchi’s clients.
In the case of McArthur v. Beutler, Inc., d/b/a George J. Shaw Construction Company, et al., the plaintiff had alleged that he had sustained personal injuries while driving a dump truck at a Kansas City construction site. The plaintiff claimed that an employee of Baker Sterchi’s client, George J. Shaw Construction, had dropped a load of rock/concrete into his dump truck from too great of a height and from an improper location, causing him to be jostled in the cab and injured.
Baker Sterchi’s client, Shaw Construction, was a contractor on the job that had been hired to perform excavation work. In turn, Shaw had subcontracted with another company, a for hire motor carrier, to haul material away from the site. That company, in turn, further contracted with the plaintiff’s direct employer, another for hire motor carrier, to perform a portion of its subcontracted work, meaning that the plaintiff was employed by a company two tiers removed from Shaw. Under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.040, this somewhat complicated series of contractual arrangement made the plaintiff a “statutory employee” of Shaw under Missouri’s Workers’ Compensation scheme.
When a Missouri worker sustains an on-the-job injury, he or she is typically entitled to seek workers’ compensation from a direct or statutory employer. In exchange, however, for guaranteeing the various workers compensation benefits required by the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act, those employers are immune from any civil liability and lawsuit arising out of the injury. As the Missouri Supreme Court has previously put it: “The Workers’ Compensation Law […] supplants the common law in determining remedies for on-the-job injuries.” Vatterott v. Hammerts Iron Works, Inc., 968 S.W.2d 120, 121 (Mo. 1998).
Here, after the truck driver had collected his workers’ compensation benefits from his direct employer, he sought further recovery by filing a civil lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court against Shaw and its track hoe operator, despite their immunity under the workers’ compensation statutes. Baker Sterchi filed a motion for summary judgment asserting their clients’ immunity as a complete defense to the plaintiff’s claims. Almost a year later the trial judge, Sandra Midkiff, denied the motion. Her ruling was based on an erroneous, illegitimate interpretation and misapplication of a narrow exception to the statutory employers’ immunity intended to apply only to commercial trucking “owner-operators” who are injured while driving for a “for-hire motor carrier.” In this case, the plaintiff was not an owner-operator, nor was Shaw a for-hire motor carrier.
Ordinarily, a denial of a motion for summary judgment is not subject to appellate review. The only option to appeal such a ruling is to defend the case through trial and then, if an adverse verdict is entered, take that verdict up on appeal. In certain very limited circumstances, however, Missouri law allows a defendant to seek an “extraordinary writ,” which is a separate action against the trial-court judge alleging that the judge has denied the defendant a “clear, unequivocal, specific right to a thing claimed.” Here, Baker Sterchi’s clients had a clear, unequivocal, and specific right to have summary judgment entered on their immunity defenses, so they asked the appellate courts to enter a “writ of prohibition” ordering the trial judge to enter the summary judgment in their favor to which they were entitled.
Winning an extraordinary writ against a trial judge is extremely difficult and rare. In the words of the Missouri Supreme Court, “There is no remedy that a court can provide that is more drastic, no exercise of raw judicial power that is more awesome, than that available through the extraordinary writ.” State ex rel. Kelley v. Mitchell, 595 S.W.2d 261, 66 (Mo. 1980). Initially, the Western District Court of Appeals declined to exercise that “raw judicial power,” denying the Petition for Writ – without a written opinion explaining its reasoning—and leaving Judge Midkiff’s ruling intact. Undeterred, Baker Sterchi sought further review and relief by the Missouri Supreme Court.
After reviewing the initial filing, Missouri’s highest court issued a preliminary writ of prohibition precluding the trial court from taking any further action other than granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment while its ruling remained under review. The parties then presented written briefs and oral argument, after which the Missouri Supreme Court held that the trial judge had overstepped and exceeded her judicial authority by denying the defendants’ right to immunity from suit, and it entered a permanent writ ordering the trial judge to grant the motion for summary judgment filed by Baker Sterchi in the trial court. In the Court’s decision authored by Justice Paul Wilson, the Missouri Supreme Court found that “there is an unbroken chain of contractor-subcontractor relationships making Shaw [the plaintiff’s] statutory employer,” and that “the circuit court’s analysis focused on the wrong relationship when determining the exception” to statutory employment applied. That is exactly what Meltzer and Hill had been arguing since they filed their motion for summary judgment more than two years earlier.
The result in this case is a complete win for Baker Sterchi’s client, absolving them of any liability on the plaintiff’s claims, which at the time had been the subject of a time limited demand of $3.6 million dollars. This outcome was made possible by Baker Sterchi’s attorneys’ persistent and unwavering pursuit of a defense they believed in, despite adverse rulings from the trial court and an intermediate appellate court, which had misapplied the statute at issue.