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Supreme Court of Missouri Overrules Prior Case Law and Adopts “Contributing Factor” Causation Standard for Workers’ Comp. Retaliation Claims

There is nothing in the entire field of law which has called forth more disagreement, or upon which the opinions are in such a welter of confusion’ than causation.” Templemire v. W&M Welding, Inc., No. SC 93132, 2014 WL 1464574, at*9 (Mo. banc April 15, 2014) (quoting Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 41 at 263 (5th ed. 1984). In a 5 – 2 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled its own precedent on the appropriate causation standard for workers’ compensation retaliation claims. Id. Plaintiffs no longer need to prove that filing a workers’ compensation claim was the “exclusive cause” of an adverse employment action. They only need to prove that the workers’ compensation claim was a “contributing factor” in their employer’s decision to take an adverse employment action against them. Additionally, the Missouri Supreme Court has expressly rejected the public policy argument that abandoning the exclusive cause standard will transform the workers’ compensation statute into  a “job security act.”

The Missouri Workers’ Compensation Statute prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for seeking workers compensation benefits. But the statute is silent as to what constitutes unlawful retaliation. See RSMo. 287.780. The Missouri Supreme Court filled the gap in the workers’ compensation statute by creating a four element cause of action. See Hansome v. Northwestern Cooperage Co., 679 S.W.2d 273, 275 (Mo. banc 1984). The final element of the Hansome test is “an exclusive causal connection between plaintiff’s [i.e. the employee’s] actions and defendant’s [i.e. the employer’s] actions.” Id. This meant that plaintiff-employees had a cause of action against their employer only if they could prove that they suffered an adverse employment action solely because they filed a workers compensation claim. The exclusive causal connection standard of causation was reaffirmed by the Court in Crabtree v. Bugsby. See 967 S.W.2d 66 (Mo. banc 1998). The Hansome test proceeded unchallenged until John Templemire (“Templemire”) filed the present suit.

Templemire was a painter and general laborer at W& M Welding, Inc. His job duties included driving trucks and washing fabricated parts in a wash bay. One day, while Templemire was at work performing his usual duties, a large steel beam fell from a forklift and crushed his foot.  Templemire filed a workers compensation claim, underwent corrective surgery and eventually returned to work with physical restrictions. There was evidence that Gary McMullin (“McMullin”), the owner of W&M Welding, was very critical of injured employees. McMullin allegedly told Templemire that (1) he was a “high maintenance employee” (2) he was milking his injury and (3) “all you do is sit on your ass and draw my money.” On November 29, 2006, McMullin instructed Templemire to wash and paint a rail. The rail was not ready for washing and painting at the time McMullin made the request. Therefore, Templemire completed other tasks while the rail was being prepped for washing and painting. After completing the other tasks but before washing and painting the rail, McMullin took a break to rest his injured foot. McMullin was outraged by the fact that Templemire had taken a break and summarily fired him in contravention of W&M Welding’s progressive discipline policy.

Templemire subsequently filed suit under RSMo 287.780 alleging that he was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim. At trial, Templemire challenged the standard jury instruction which contained the Hansome standard of causation. The trial court refused to change the instruction and the jury found in favor of W&M Welding. The court of appeals, following Hansome and Crabtree, affirmed the trial court.

The Supreme Court of Missouri granted transfer and abandoned the Hansome line of cases. According to the Court, Hansome was faulty from its inception and was now out of step with modern labor and employment law. “Here, adherence to stare decisis is ill-advised when one carefully examines this Court’s sua sponte creation of the exclusive causation standard articulated in Hansome. Hansome’s reliance on Mitchell and Davis to support an exclusive causation standard is unfounded. Neither Mitchell nor Davis contain any reference whatsoever to a heightened or exclusive causation standard for a plaintiff to prevail on a claim for retaliatory discharge under the workers’ compensation law.” Templemire, 2014 WL 1464574 at*7. Most importantly, the Court expressly rejected the argument that abandoning the exclusive causation standard would incentivize employees to file meritless workers’ compensation claims for the sole purpose of casting doubt on the lawfulness of all subsequent discipline. Id. at*11. “This concern was legitimate at the time section 287.780 was amended to include a private cause of action because it was one of only a few statutes that limited the at-will employment doctrine. Since that time, the legislature has seen fit to carve out additional statutory exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, with the MHRA being one of the most significant, which has demonstrated that these concerns are unwarranted.” Id.

Important Points

In the state of Missouri, workers’ compensation retaliation claims are evaluated under a contributing factor standard of causation.

It is no longer persuasive to argue that the contributing factor analysis will lead to negative externalities or meritless claims of discrimination.