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High Court Finds Worker May Sue Company Related to Her Employer After Injury – Howsden v. Roper’s Real Estate Co.

By November 18, 2011July 10th, 2019Personal Injury, Premises Liability

One truism of my work as a Missouri injury lawyer is that most of the time, people injured at work may not sue their employers. Most workplaces are covered by workers’ compensation laws, which means the exclusive remedy for such people is to claim workers’ compensation payments. This can cause fights with insurance companies, but it may allow workers to get compensation without filing a lawsuit. However, when the workplace injury happened on the premises, or because of the actions, of a third party, workers may be able to sue instead of or in addition to claiming compensation. That was the situation in Howsden v. Roper’s Real Estate Co., in which Darlene Howsden was injured at her workplace. The premises were not owned by her employer, but a related entity, and the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Howsden may sue that entity.
Howsden worked at a funeral home that was purchased by Roper & Sons Inc., another funeral home. For business and tax purposes, all real estate operated by Roper & Sons is owned by Roper’s Real Estate Company. Howsden’s workplace was in an older building, which had an old-fashioned elevator that connected two hallways on the same floor. The elevator was rarely used to travel between floors, but employees would use it to move between the two hallways. Howsden was seriously injured after she entered the elevator, expecting it to be on her floor, and fell through the empty shaft to the basement. She successfully claimed workers’ compensation benefits through the employer’s insurer, which covered her employer, Roper & Sons and Roper’s Real Estate. She then filed a lawsuit alleging that negligence by Roper’s Real Estate caused the injury. The trial court ultimately granted Roper’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Howsden’s exclusive remedy was workers’ compensation
On appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed that decision. Howsden’s cse presents an unusual situation because her employer was not Roper’s Real Estate, the defendant — it is Roper & Sons. Roper’s argued that the entities should be considered under the dual capacity or dual persona doctrines. Those doctrines are not applicable, the court said, because the two Roper entities are not the same company — they are separate legal entities that have the same board of directors. Indeed, it noted, courts in many other jurisdictions have declined to collapse this kind of separate legal entity format into one entity for workers’ compensation purposes. “One cannot claim the benefits of incorporation without the burdens,” the court noted. Furthermore, courts have generally declined to pierce the corporate veil except in cases of fraud, and the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed. Thus, it reversed the lower court and remanded the case.
As a St. Louis personal injury attorney, I appreciate that the high court declined to protect the company from litigation in a situation that would offer zero protection to another separate entity. As the court noted, the benefits of incorporating separately come at the price of the responsibilities and liabilities of the separate entity. This situation may be more common than employees think, since it’s not uncommon to have different legal entities operating different parts of what looks on the outside like the same business. This offers more opportunities for relief to people who are injured on the job, since workers’ compensation can be difficult to claim when the employer or its insurer won’t play fair. Workplace injury lawsuits like Howsden’s are simpler to pursue with the help of an experienced southern Illinois accident lawyer, even if they are more time-consuming by design.

If someone in your household was seriously injured in an accident that was no fault of their own, Carey, Danis & Lowe can help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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