Iowa Supreme Court Rules on Gross Negligence Against Co-Employees

  • Dec 18, 2020

Legal Update by Attorneys Alison Stewart, Nick Cooling, and Law Clerk Jordan Gehlhaar

The Iowa Supreme Court recently released an opinion in Terry v. Dorothy, ruling on a gross negligence claim against a co-employee. In October of 2015, Brian Terry, an employee of Lutheran Services in Iowa, sustained serious injuries after he was attacked by a client. Brian filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was resolved by a final compromise settlement pursuant to Iowa Code section 85.35(3). The settlement documents consisted of a “Compromise Settlement,” and “Additional Terms of Settlement.”

The Compromise Settlement contained release language in which Claimant Terry discharged the employer and insurance carrier from all liability pertaining to the accident under workers’ compensation law. The Additional Terms provided the settlement was a “final discharge of all claims and demands that may exist against [LSI and their insurance carrier] and any of their employees by reason of . . . employment.” (emphasis added).

In October of 2017, Brian Terry and his wife brought claims in the district court against Meghan Dorothy, Brian’s supervisor at the time of the injury. The petition alleged gross negligence when the supervisor put Terry in a one-on-one situation with a likelihood of assault. Additionally, Terry’s wife brought a loss of consortium claim. Dorothy moved for summary judgment relying in part on the release language in the settlement between Terry and LSI. The district court granted the supervisor’s motion for summary judgment reasoning that Terry lost further rights to pursue damages under Iowa Code section 85.20 (rights exclusive) and 85.35(9) (settlement as a final bar).

The Terry’s appealed and the majority in the Court of Appeals reversed. It was found that the statutory settlement before the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner only released statutory claims, not common law claims such as gross negligence. The majority also found that contractual theories were not properly before the court.

The Iowa Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Supreme Court agreed that gross negligence was a common law claim and not within the scope of workers’ compensation. Statutory immunity for claims under workers’ compensation previously applied only to employers, not co-employees. In 1974, the statute was amended extinguishing common law claims against co-employees - except those founded in gross negligence.

Summary judgment was granted on contract grounds. Since a release is a contract, basic principles of contract law apply. The Compromise Settlement is limited to release of workers’ compensation claims and was therefore not enough to provide a basis for summary judgment of the common law claims. However, the “Additional Terms of Settlement,” containing broad language releasing all employees from any and all liability, was sufficient to distinguish the gross negligence claim.

Absent legislative amendment, gross negligence claims must be specifically bargained for and enumerated in a settlement release to bar further action against co-employees arising from a work injury.

Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor this issue.


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