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Workers' Compensation

Tornado Victims Injured or Killed in the Workplace: A Focus on Missouri Case Law

The general rule stated by Professor Larson is that injury due to Acts of God arises out of the employment if the employment increases the risk of this kind of harm. It is difficult to prove increased risk in tornado cases, though. Some exceptions would include showing that the location of employment increased the risk of injury, the structure of the building was flimsy or insecure, or the claimant’s duties exposed him or her to the wind [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, Ch. 5, § 5.02].

In the leading Missouri case, Stone v. Blackmer & Post Pipe Company, 224 Mo. App. 319 (1930), the widow of a firefighter, who was shoveling coal into a furnace and was killed by the falling of a brick smokestack that was blown down by a tornado, was denied workers’ compensation benefits. The Court of Appeals ruled that the firefighter’s accidental death resulted from a cause wholly disconnected with the operation of the employer’s business.

According to the court, “a mere showing that the employee was injured by accident occurring on the premises of his employer, at or near the regular place of service, does not serve to establish liability under the Act.”  The court stated in pertinent part:

As to whether an employer is liable to make compensation for an employee who was killed in the collapse of a building due to a tornado, in the absence of evidence that the employer's industry caused the injury, that it accentuated the risk of the deceased over that of the public, or that the nature of the employment was one that forced the employee to be especially subject to the dangers of certain acts of God, there is no causal relation between the injury and the employment and, thus, there can be no award of a workmen's compensation benefit. 

The court further stated that:

A tornado is one of the forces of nature which man cannot foresee and prevent, and an employee is ordinarily no more subject to injury from such source than are others where the nature of the employment does not subject him to any more peculiar risk than any other member of the public might have been subjected to if he had been at the same place at the same time that the accident occurred. In other words, risks to which all persons similarly situated are equally exposed, whether in the employment or not, and not traceable in some special degree to the particular employment, are such as are not compensable under Missouri's statutes. The fact that the injury was caused by the act of God does not, however, necessarily deprive the injured party of the right to recover under the Missouri Workmen's Compensation Act if the employee's duties exposed him to some special danger not common to the public. 

Thus, in another Missouri case, Williams v. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, 332 S.W.2d 296 (1960), an employee who sustained injuries when a tornado collapsed a wall of his workplace on him, was denied workers’ compensation benefits. The employee worked as a cashier at a supermarket when a tornado was approaching. He went to the rear of the store to warn customers to move to the front because the walls were stronger there. The rear wall collapsed on him when the tornado struck. The trial court sustained the administrative denial of benefits. On further appeal, the employee argued that his injury arose from his employment and from his effort to protect the customers. In affirming, the court ruled that its review was limited to determining whether the commission's decision was supported by competent and substantial evidence and was legally correct. The court also ruled that Mo. Rev. Stat. § 287.120 (1949) required the accident to be one arising out of, and in the course of, his employment and that an injury resulting by reason of the elements or an act of God was compensable only where the nature of his employment subjected the employee to hazards from the forces of nature over and above those to which the public generally was exposed. The court held that the tornado had a devastating area-wide effect on the public generally and not just on the employee because of his employment.  The court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

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