Avoiding the pitfalls of a recent work comp ruling
The Missouri Supreme Court recently overturned 30 years of precedent and reduced the standard of proof required by employees who seek benefits established by the workers’ compensation law and then experience retaliation afterward.
The court, in Templemire v. W&M Welding Inc., held that the plaintiff, John Templemire, was only required to prove that his seeking of benefits established by the workers’ compensation law was a contributing factor to the employer’s adverse employment action.
For over 30 years, the courts in Missouri consistently required an exclusive causal connection between seeking benefits established by the workers’ compensation law and any subsequent adverse actions by their employers.
Employers should take stock of the impact of this decision because every workers’ compensation attorney has a filing drawer full of potential plaintiffs at his or her disposal.
The facts of Templemire are not remarkable. John Templemire injured his foot on the job, and his work duties were restricted.
Almost a year after returning to work, the employer terminated Templemire. The employer believed Templemire ignored job duties and was insubordinate. Templemire had evidence that injured workers were referred to as “whiners,” that he was belittled because of his injury, and that the employer failed to follow a structured discipline policy.
At trial, the jury was required to determine if seeking benefits established by the workers’ compensation law was the exclusive factor for Templemire’s termination. The jury agreed that Templemire was not fired solely based on his unemployment claims (also called exclusive causation) and, thus, found in favor of the employer.
The court of appeals upheld the trial court decision, relying on the case of Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co., which established the law on the issue in Missouri since 1984. The Missouri Supreme Court overruled the holding in Hansome and replaced the exclusive factor standard with a contributing factor standard.
This lower threshold standard is consistent with other interpretations of Missouri’s employment discrimination law, outlined in Daugherty v. City of Maryland Heights regarding claims filed under the Missouri Human Rights Act. A strong dissent written by Judge Fischer, joined by Judge Wilson, set forth a road map for the legislature to overrule the effect of the court’s majority.
In the dissent, Judges Fischer and Wilson express their greatest concern with the majority’s decision: the majority ignored the principle of stare decisis and the will of the legislature.
Despite significant changes to the workers’ compensation laws in 2005, the legislature chose not to alter the section that dealt with retaliation, thereby affirming the exclusive causation standard of review expressed in case law. Yet, as the majority pointed out, the exclusive causation standard is not set forth in the statute, and strict construction helped lead to the departure of a long established rule of law.
Departure from long established rules of law is consistent with the Missouri Supreme Court’s 2012 landmark ruling of Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, which overturned medical malpractice limits for noneconomic damages. The repercussions of Watts and disdain for strict statutory interpretation are likely to ring many more bells in towers of established law for years to come.
Employers should take action now to avoid the pitfalls of this latest ruling.