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Insurer not liable for $7 million judgment in charcoal kiln door death

Posted On: May. 1, 2015 12:00 AM CST

An insurer has no duty to defend or indemnify the owner of a charcoal manufacturing company where a worker was killed when she was crushed by a 2,000-pound steel door, the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled.

Linda Nunley’s job at Missouri Hardwood Charcoal, Inc. in, which is owned solely by Junior Flowers, occasionally required her to remove “gigantic” steel doors from kilns and lean them upright against the machines, court records show.

She was crushed and killed by a 2,000-pound kiln door in April 2007 when the wind blew it over.

Following Ms. Nunley’s death, her mother and three children received $5,000 in workers compensation benefits from Missouri Hardwood, records show. Then, they filed a wrongful death suit in August 2008 against Mr. Flowers, alleging he “was negligent in ordering employees to lean the kiln doors upright, even though he knew it was unsafe.”

Mr. Flowers and the plaintiffs came to an agreement in which the plaintiffs promised not to try to collect from him personally, only from his commercial general liability and umbrella policies with Indiana Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Co., according to records. In return, Mr. Flowers agreed to set the case for trial in Cole County, Missouri, and to testify truthfully, among other things.

A March 2012 bench trial awarded the plaintiffs $7 million in damages, and determined Mr. Flowers was liable for negligence in maintaining the kiln door policy, records show.

The plaintiffs then filed an equitable garnishment action seeking payment from Indiana Lumbermens Mutual. However, the insurer argued it wasn’t “required to pay the judgment because the policies exclude coverage for claims involving workers compensation and bodily injury.”

The circuit court granted Indiana Lumbermens Mutual’s motion for summary judgment.

While the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court’s decision last June, an en banc panel of the Missouri Supreme Court ruled 5-1 Tuesday to uphold the circuit court.

These commercial general liability and umbrella policies “were intended to insure Missouri Hardwood and its executive officers against liability for accidental injuries to members of the public,” according to the state Supreme Court. “The policies accomplished this goal and barred the plaintiffs’ claims through unambiguous language that excluded liability to employees. … Because there was no potential for coverage at the outset of the wrongful death case, or at any other time, (Indiana Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Co.) had no duty to defend or indemnify Flowers.”