Missouri Supreme Court Broadens Injured Workers’ Protection from Wrongful Discharge

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Employers will want to think twice about retaliating against workers who pursue their rights under Missouri Worker’s Compensation laws.  The Missouri Supreme Court recently handed down a decision that puts new teeth into the wrongful discharge law for injured employees.  The case, Templemire v. W.M. Welding, Inc., involved a painter and general laborer who injured his foot when a large metal beam fell from a forklift.  As necessary for the law’s protection to kick in, employee Templemire reported his injury to his employer and filed a worker’s compensation claim.  After undergoing surgery for the crushing injuries, he was released to return to work on various light duty restrictions.  Part of the restrictions required the employee to take a 15-minute break after being on his feet for an hour.  While taking one of these breaks to rest his infected foot, Templemire’s boss and company owner cursed at him and fired him for “insubordination.”

Templemire filed a lawsuit against his employer in the Circuit Court of Pettis County (Sedalia area) under the part of the worker’s compensation statute that protects employees from being discharged in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim.  At trial, the employer argued that Templemire was a “high maintenance employee,” and that he disregarded his priority work assignment to wash a railing immediately.  Employer argued that when the assignment was still unfinished 2 hours after it was given and he found the employee taking a break, Templemire’s response was that the boss could take it up with Templemire’s physician if the boss did not like it.

Applying the old interpretation of the law, the Trial Court instructed the jury that the only way Templemire could win his case was if he could prove that the filing of his worker’s compensation claim was the exclusivefactor in the employer’s decision to discharge him.  Thus, the jury was basically left with no choice but to enter a verdict in favor of the employer.

The Missouri Supreme Court recognized that the way the law was being applied in reality “deprives an employee’s right to remedy the evil of being discriminated against or discharged for exercising worker’s compensation rights.”  According to the Court, the Missouri legislature intended that worker’s compensation laws should be construed liberally, in favor of injured workers.  Therefore, the Missouri Supreme Court partially overruled its earlier decisions and imposed a new standard.  From now on, the Missouri courts will use a “contributing factor” test.  If an employee can show that exercising worker’s compensation rights contributed to being fired, the employee can prevail in a money damages lawsuit.

For Templemire, the Supreme Court recognized that his evidence might have been sufficient for him to win, under the new standard.  His employer repeatedly yelled at him and complained to other workers about Templemire sitting on his “a–” and drawing money.  The boss/owner called other injured employees “whiners,” he refused to accommodate their restrictions, and he even fired another employee shortly after filing a worker’s compensation claim.  Templemire also presented evidence that he was fired in contravention of his employer’s “progressive discipline policy.”  He submitted proof that the boss/owner complained to the insurance adjustor that Templemire was “milking his injury,” and that Templemire could sue him for whatever reason he wanted because the employer paid his premiums and attorneys to handle those lawsuits.  This was the type of evidence that could be sufficient to show that the employer actually fired Templemire because of his work injury, not because of “insubordination.”

If you believe that you have been retaliated against for pursuing worker’s compensation benefits, contact Faerber & Anderson, P.C. for a free consultation at 314-772-0010.

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