A lawsuit alleging that an injured worker was fired in retaliation for his workers compensation claim only needed to prove that his claim was a “contributing factor” and not an “exclusive cause” of his discharge, a split Missouri Supreme Court ruled.
In its 5-2 Tuesday ruling in John Templemire v. W&M Welding Inc., the high court also overturned two previous Missouri Supreme Court decisions that held “exclusive cause” as the standard for workers comp discrimination lawsuits.
Mr. Templemire was hired by Sedalia, Mo.-based W&M Welding in October 2005 as a painter and general laborer, court records show. He was injured in January 2006 when a large metal beam fell from a forklift and crushed his left foot.
Mr. Templemire filed a workers comp claim and received benefits for his injury, records show. His doctor placed various work restrictions on him over the course of several months, including preventing him from climbing stairs, pushing, pulling or standing longer than one hour without a 15-minute break, court filings show.
W&M Welding placed Mr. Templemire on light-duty work assignment, and he remained on light duty through November 2006, records show.
Mr. Templemire received an assignment one day to wash a railing, but was delayed in performing the task because another worker had not yet prepared the railing for cleaning, according to records. While Mr. Templemire was taking a 15-minute break to rest his injured foot — which had become infected — W&M owner Gary McMullin confronted and cursed at him for not washing the railing and fired him immediately.
Mr. Templemire contacted his workers comp claims adjuster and informed her of his firing, according to court records. The adjuster called Mr. McMullin to discuss the necessity for Mr. Templemire to take work breaks.
W&M's owner told the adjuster that he felt that Mr. Templemire was “milking” his injury and that Mr. Templemire “can sue him for whatever reason,” according to court records. Mr. Templemire sued, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for filing a workers comp claim.
During a trial in Missouri's Pettis County Circuit Court, Mr. Templemire's attorneys presented evidence that Mr. McMullin had fired another employee who had filed a workers comp claim, and had also belittled workers who were injured and did not receive workers comp, records show. Evidence also showed that Mr. Templemire was regarded as a good employee who performed his tasks efficiently prior to his discharge.
Contributing factor vs. exclusive cause
The Pettis County jury ruled in W&M's favor, finding that Mr. Templemire's workers comp claim was not the exclusive factor considered by Mr. McMullin when he fired Mr. Templemire, records show. Mr. Templemire appealed, arguing that the jury instructions were misstated and that jurors should have weighed whether his comp claim was a “contributing factor,” rather than the “exclusive cause,” of his firing.
In its ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court found that a “contributing factor” standard should have been used to weigh Mr. Templemire's case and that workers comp discrimination should be considered in line with other Missouri employment discrimination laws under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Therefore, the court majority said, the jury in Mr. Templemire's case should have considered whether his comp claim was a contributing factor, rather than the sole cause, of his discharge.
The majority found that Mr. Templemire presented “substantial evidence” that W&M Welding discriminated against him because of his workers comp claim, and ordered a new trial for Mr. Templemire that would use the “contributing factor” standard.
“While this Court recognizes a fundamental difference between the purposes of the (Missouri Human Rights Act) and the workers compensation laws as a whole, there can be no tolerance for employment discrimination in the workplace, be it based upon protected classes such as gender, race or age, or an employee blowing the whistle on an employer's illegal practices in violation of public policy, or for exercising workers compensation rights,” the majority opinion reads. “Discrimination against an employee for exercising his or her rights under the workers compensation law is just as illegal, insidious and reprehensible as discrimination under the (Missouri Human Rights Act) or for retaliatory discharge under the public policy exception of the at-will employment doctrine.”
The majority also said that two prior high court decisions that established the “exclusive cause” standard should no longer apply because the cases were based on an “erroneous” understanding of prior case law.
The court's dissenting opinion argued that the high court should uphold its prior precedent and hold Mr. Templemire's case to the “exclusive cause” standard.
“Other than 16 years (from the most recent related decision) and the changing membership of this court, nothing has changed that can explain why there is a legal need to change the standard of causation,” the dissent reads.