Court Decides Two Employer-Liability Cases

September 3, 2007 | Roger McEowen


The Iowa Court of Appeals has decided two cases involving employer liability – one case involving the issue of an employer’s liability to an employee for an on-the-job injury, and a second case involving the question of when an employer is liable for injuries to a patron that an employee causes.

The first case involved an employee that was injured on the job.  For employment not covered by worker’s compensation, in order to hold an employer liable for injuries suffered by its employees on the job, the injured employee must show that the employer breached a duty owed to the employee.  The employer bears certain common law responsibilities such as: (1) the duty to provide reasonably safe tools and appliances; (2) the duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work; (3) the duty to warn and instruct the employee of dangers which the employee could not reasonably be expected to discover; and (4) the duty to provide reasonably competent fellow employees. 

In this case, an employee sued his Iowa employer for injuries sustained on the job from a fall while carrying boxes down hardwood stairs in a private home in Kentucky. The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer, because the employee had failed to establish that the employer had a duty to warn of the danger of the staircase. 

On appeal, the court explained that in order to recover on a premises liability claim in the employer/employee context, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the condition of the premises and that it involved an unreasonable risk of injury to a person in the plaintiff’s situation. Also, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew or should have known that the plaintiff wouldn’t discover or realize the risk. The plaintiff must also establish that the defendant was actually negligent and that negligence was the main reason for their injury.  The plaintiff couldn’t meet the tests and the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment for the employer. Harper v. Pella Corp., No. 7-404/06-1198, 2007 Iowa App. LEXIS 832 (Iowa Ct. App., Jul. 12, 2007). 

The second case involved an injury to a business patron allegedly caused by an employee.  In certain situations, an employer may be held liable for tortious (usually negligent) acts committed by an employee. Thus, if an employee commits a tort during the “scope of his/her employment,” the employer will be held jointly liable for the act. This rule is often described as the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” which means “let the person higher up answer.” 

In early 2002, an employee security guard at a casino collided with a patron of the casino. After the collision, the patron reported no significant injuries. But, the patron died eleven months later from unrelated causes.  Her estate sued, alleging that the casino was negligent in hiring the security guard, and failed to properly supervise and train him. The trial court ruled for the casino.

On appeal, the court reversed.  The appellate court believed that a jury could have reached the conclusion that an employee acted negligently.  So, the jury was entitled to hear the case.  That means that, at trial, the employer could be found liable.  The lesson from the case is clear - employers must supervise and train their employees to help ward off liability for injuries to others.  In re Estate of Cooper v. Isle of Capri Bettendorf, L.C., No. 7-494/06-1667, 2007 Iowa App. LEXIS 902 (Iowa Ct. App., Aug. 22, 2007).