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Family can’t recover from co-worker for driver’s death

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled on Sept. 27 that the family of a delivery driver who died in his un-air-conditioned van cannot sue the supervisor who put him on the road.

The long-running case stems from the August 2011 death of Thomas Channel, a delivery driver for Cintas Corp. in Webb City. In a lawsuit, Channel’s survivors alleged that his supervisor, Stephen Walker, had tried to get rid of the older driver by intentionally putting him on one of the company’s longest routes and giving him a truck without air conditioning.

Channel was found dead in his truck after succumbing to heat stroke on a 106-degree day. The family sued Walker, alleging that his actions had caused Channel’s death. 

Generally, claims of workplace injuries must be resolved through the workers’ compensation system. But at the time of Channel’s death, separate suits against co-employees who caused the injury appeared to be a viable cause of action, based on caselaw at the time.

In 2016, however, the Supreme Court held that a co-worker could be held liable only if he or she did something distinct from the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace. And in 2018, in three simultaneous rulings, the Supreme Court said that employers are responsible for all injuries from “reasonably foreseeable” workplace hazards — a high bar that barred most claims against co-employees.

One of the three cases, McComb v. Norfus, involved the death of a courier who slid off the road after he was ordered to drive during a winter storm. The Supreme Court found the co-employees couldn’t be held individually liable. The Western District said those facts “closely parallel” those of Channel’s death.

“It was the severe summer weather that made Channel’s workplace unsafe,” Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert wrote for the court. “The risks associated with driving a delivery vehicle without an air conditioning unit in a region that experiences extremely hot weather conditions were reasonably foreseeable to Cintas.” Chief Judge Gary D. Witt and Jackson County Associate Circuit Judge Jeffrey C. Keal, who sat specially on the case, concurred. 

AW Smith of the AW Smith Law Firm in Columbia, an attorney for the Channel family, said he would ask for a rehearing or transfer but otherwise declined to comment. Jeffrey Upp of Turner, Reid, Duncan, Loomer & Patton in Springfield, an attorney for the defendant, couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

The case is Channel v. Walker, WD85172.