Gary Boothe, Jr.  v. Dish Network, Inc.

Missouri Supreme Court decision handed down December 21, 2021

 

On December 21, 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that the Labor Commission’s denial of benefits to a worker who was injured in a one-vehicle crash after he choked on his breakfast food was correct. 

 

Gary Boothe Jr. (“Boothe”) was a Field Service Specialist for DISH Network, Inc. (“DISH”). In this position, he would drive a company vehicle to provide services to customers in a large area. Boothe would receive his itinerary around 7:15 a.m. in the mornings and would begin driving by 7:30 a.m. to arrive at his first appointment on time. Occasionally, Boothe would pick up breakfast when traveling, although company policy prohibited eating while driving to ensure safety. Boothe preferred to eat while driving on some days due to the lack of restaurants in an area he was working on a particular day, which would make eating lunch difficult.

 

One morning in July 2017, as Boothe was on the way to his first appointment, he stopped at a convenience store and bought a breakfast sandwich, among other things. This stop led to Boothe having to rush for his first appointment in order to arrive on time. As Boothe was driving, he decided to eat his breakfast sandwich simultaneously. Within a mile, he choked on the sandwich, attempted to slow down, and blacked out. Subsequently, his vehicle collided with a pillar on the side of the road. Boothe’s body struck a pole in the center of his van, and he suffered contusions to his chest and right flank, along with back pain.

 

Boothe filed a workers’ compensation claim. After a hearing, an administrative law judge awarded benefits to Boothe and determined the injury’s risk source was traveling on a rural highway on a strict timeline, which was not something that occurred in nonemployment life. However, the award of benefits to Boothe was reduced due to a penalty for violating the company's policy, which prohibits eating while driving. Subsequently, DISH sought review from the Labor Commission, which is the first level of appeal for the parties in a Missouri workers’ compensation matter.

 

Under Missouri Law, for a work-related injury to be compensable, it must “arise out of and in the course of employment.”  Section 287.020.3(2)(b) RSMo. states that in order to find that an injury arises out of and in the course of employment, the injury “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.” The Commission determined that Boothe had failed to show that his injury arose out of and in the course of employment, stating that the “risk source” of his injuries was his decision to eat while he was driving, which is a “risk unrelated to the employment” to which he would have been equally exposed outside of employment in normal nonemployment life. 

 

Boothe appealed his case to the Missouri Court of Appeals, which reversed the Labor Commission’s decision and awarded benefits to the worker.  Basically, the Court of Appeals held that the crash is what caused the claimant’s injuries---not choking on the sandwich. And since Booth was driving for his employer, DISH, he was not equally exposed to having a car accident in his nonemployment life, as he would not have been driving at that time or in that location if it weren’t for the fact that he was driving for his employer.  The court also found that Boothe was on a strict schedule.

 

The employer then sought one last avenue of appeal and moved for the case to be transferred to The Missouri Supreme Court, the highest court in Missouri.  Very few cases are accepted by The Missouri Supreme Court, but this case was accepted for transfer.  The employer was allowed to appeal the Court of Appeals’ decision granting benefits. 

 

In a potentially game-changing decision, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the Commission’s denial of benefits to the employee was proper. In a nutshell, the Court decided that Boothe was eating while driving, which created the risk of choking and subsequently blacking out, causing him to crash. The Court said that employee was not required by his employer to eat while driving, so no condition of the employee’s work led to the accident.  The Supreme Court denied the benefits to the employee.

 

The interpretation of Section 287.020.3(2)(b) in this case will likely make it harder for employees to demonstrate that a particular activity is within the scope of their employment in many situations. We expect more employers to deny more cases as a result.  If your workers’ compensation case is denied on such grounds, please reach out to the attorneys at Bollwerk & Tatlow and we will help you analyze the situation.

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