The Missouri Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in the case Gary Boothe, Jr. v. DISH Network, Inc.,637 S.W.3d 45 (2021), affirming a decision from the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. This appeal stems from an award issued by the Missouri Division of Workers’ Compensation, which awarded benefits to Mr. Boothe for an injury he sustained due to an accident in July 2017. The Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission reversed the award and denied benefits to Mr. Boothe. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the Labor and Industrial Relation Commission’s reversal.
On the morning of the accident, Mr. Boothe loaded up his van and started to travel to his first appointment of the day. Along the way, he stopped at a convenience store and bought a few items, including a breakfast sandwich. Mr. Boothe began to eat the sandwich while he drove his route. About a mile down the road, he choked on the sandwich, attempted to slow down, and blacked out. Mr. Boothe crashed into a pillar on the side of the road, and sustained injury to his chest, right flank, and back.
An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that the injury’s risk source was traveling on a rural highway on a strict timeline, which did not occur in nonemployment life. The ALJ did acknowledge; however, that the tight schedule did not cause Mr. Boothe to eat while driving because he could have eaten breakfast before work and could eat during breaks provided throughout the day. Mr. Boothe testified at hearing that he did not eat before work because he was not a morning person. He also admitted that he preferred to eat later because his schedule and a lack of lunch restaurants in his territory could make eating lunch difficult. The ALJ awarded Mr. Boothe benefits, but reduced the amount of benefits due to a violation of company policy prohibiting eating while driving.
DISH sought review from the Commission, which reversed the award and denied compensation because the injury’s risk source was eating breakfast while driving. The Commission also found Mr. Boothe failed to establish a causal connection between his work and his injury because Dish did not require him to eat breakfast while driving. Moreover, there was no evidence Mr. Boothe was rushed to reach his first appointment, and if he was rushed, it was because of his own actions. He also chose to stop at the convenience store, which was not required by his employment.
To be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, an injury must arise out of and in the course of employment. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.020.3. An injury shall be deemed to arise out of and in the course of the employment only if: (a) it is reasonably apparent, upon consideration of all the circumstances, that the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the injury; and (b) it does not 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 nonemployment life. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.120.1. In conducting the applicable analysis, the injury’s risk source is key. Johme v. St. John’s Mercy Healthcare, 366 S.W.3d 504, 510 (Mo. Banc 2012).
The Missouri Supreme Court noted that while the Commission failed to use the precise language included in statute, it determined Mr. Boothe failed to show his injury arose out of and in the course of his employment because the injury risk source was eating while driving. Eating while driving created a risk of choking, which led to Mr. Boothe’s accident. That risk was not related to Mr. Boothe’s employment because DISH did not require him to eat breakfast after he started work for the day, and as Mr. Boothe acknowledged, he could have eaten breakfast beforehand. Mr. Boothe also failed to establish that he was not equally exposed to the risks of eating while driving in his nonemployment life.
This ruling makes it even more clear that an employee must establish that an injury arose out of and in the course of employment. Specifically, the employee must show that the accident was the prevailing factor in causing the injury, that their injury stemmed from a hazard or risk associated with their employment, and that the employee is not equally exposed to the risk in normal nonemployment life. Benefits likely will not be awarded if an Employee fails to establish any of these elements.
If you have any questions about this case and/or how it impacts matters you are reviewing, please do not hesitate to reach out to our talented attorneys. Sodoro Law Group is a full-service law firm representing the legal needs of clients in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota.