What Do You Think: Could Wife Sue After Worker Choked on Tobacco Packets?

Frank Ferreri

Kansas City, MO (WorkersCompensation.com) – A worker’s death from tobacco packets blocking his airway does not immediately sound like a work-related injury, but what legal procedure must take place before a court can say that for sure?

That was the question a federal court recently addressed following a workplace tragedy in Missouri, which raised an issue of which adjudicative body had the authority to decide.

A worker at a Ford plant was found unresponsive on a work platform by a coworker, who performed chest compressions on the worker. Another coworker arrived on the scene and performed mouth-to-mouth ventilation until two members of Ford’s emergency response team arrived and tried to use an AED device on the worker.

While these efforts were going on, a 911 call was placed. When paramedics arrived, they performed oral suctioning on the worker and found several tobacco packets in the worker’s airway. At the hospital, the worker was declared brain dead. Life support was withdrawn, and the worker died several days later.

The worker’s wife filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, charging that the worker “during the course and scope of his employment suffered an injury by accident at work” that resulted in and “was the prevailing factor in causing” the worker’s death.

In that case, Ford denied that the injury occurred during the course and scope of the worker’s employment due to the tobacco packets representing a non-work-related risk.

With the workers’ compensation claim still pending, the worker’s wife filed a tort claim in court, alleging that Ford was negligent in not providing enough emergency response team members throughout the plant and that Ford did not notify paramedics soon enough.

Ford responded by noting that the workers’ compensation case was not yet resolved, prompting the worker’s wife to file a voluntary dismissal of that proceeding. Ford then argued that because of the dismissal, the state’s workers’ compensation commission could never determine whether the injury arose out of and in the course of employment, which was necessary before the wife could pursue a civil case.

The court ruled in Ford’s favor, prompting the wife to appeal.

Generally, an employee injured on the premises of the employer’s business is allowed recovery under workers’ compensation law and can only pursue a claim in court if the employer deliberately and purposefully harmed the employee.

Could the wife sue Ford without a workers’ compensation proceeding?

A. Yes. Ford acknowledged that the case was not subject to workers’ compensation law given its argument in the initial workers’ compensation claim.

B. No. The wife’s claim involved the employer-employee relationship, and the commission had the authority to determine whether the injuries arose of that relationship.

If you chose B, you agreed with the court Ducoulombier v. Ford Motor Company, 621 S.W. 3d 523 (W.D. Mo. 2021), which explained that although Ford argued against workers’ compensation coverage for the worker, it did not mean that it conceded that the wife’s claims were outside the purview of workers’ compensation law.

The court explained that the worker’s only reason for being at the plant on the day at issue was due to his employment. Thus, the commission had the exclusive legal authority to consider the cause and extent of the injuries.

Because the wife’s claims alleged that the worker became incapacitated at work and experienced additional injury on Ford’s premises due to Ford’s negligence, the court could “find no evident, obvious, or clear error” in the lower court’s decision that the claims involved the employer-employee relationship such that the commission had exclusive authority to determine whether the worker’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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