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Apr 22, 2014

Workers' Compensation + Retaliation + Missouri Supreme Court adopts the "contributing factor" standard

ABSTRACT: A man who sued his former employer, alleging he was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim, appealed on the basis that the trial court used a jury instruction with the wrong standard. In a 5-2 decision written by Judge George W. Draper III, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the 'exclusive causation' standard and replaced it with the "contributing factor" standard.  On remand and in future cases, the jury must determine whether the plaintiff's filing of a workers' compensation claim was a "contributing factor" to his or her discharge.

On April 15th, the Missouri Supreme Court abandoned the “exclusive factor” test and replaced it with the “contributing factor” test in cases under Section 287.780 R.S.Mo., in which former employees claim they were fired due to the fact that they filed a workers’ compensation claim. In Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., No. SC93132, the plaintiff (a painter and general laborer) suffered a severe foot injury while on the job, was restricted to light-duty, and filed a workers’ compensation claim. He was subsequently fired during a heated exchange with his employer, who claimed plaintiff failed to wash a railing as instructed.

Plaintiff filed a retaliation claim under section 287.780 and submitted a verdict director that included the following element: “plaintiff’s filing of the workers’ compensation claim was a contributing factor in such discharge.” The circuit court relied on Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co., 679 S.W.2d 273 (Mo. banc 1984)and Crabtree v. Bugby, 967 S.W.2d 66 (Mo. banc 1998) in rejecting this instruction. Hansome required an exclusive causal connection between plaintiff’s actions and defendant’s actions, and this holding was reaffirmed in Crabtree.

In Templemire, the Court found that the holdings in Hansome and Crabtree “are clearly erroneous and that stare decisis should not be applied to prevent their repudiation.” In its analysis, the Court looked to Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute, P.C., in which the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine was explained by the Missouri Supreme Court in detail, changing existing law on wrongful termination cases. In Fleshner, the Court found that the exclusive causation standard would discourage employees from reporting their employers’ violations of the law or for refusing to violate the law.

In Templemire, the Court stated that “the plain language of 287.780 prohibits an employer from discharging or in any way discriminating against an employee for exercising his or her workers’ compensation rights” and that “the imposition of an exclusive causation standard effectively deprives an employee’s right to remedy the evil of being discriminated against or discharged for exercising workers’ compensation rights.” In addition, the Court noted that the MHRA provides greater protection to employees than do the federal standards.

Employers need to take heed of this decision and be aware that the same relaxed standard of proof that applies to employee terminations in anti-discrimination cases now applies to cases alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy.