An employee on light duty was fired when the company owner thought he was goofing off. The employee filed a lawsuit charging this was retaliation after he filed a workers’ comp claim. This case brought about a major change in workers’ comp law.
John Templemire was a painter and general laborer for W & M Welding in Missouri. On Jan. 9, 2006, he was injured in the course and scope of his employment when a large metal beam fell from a forklift and crushed his left foot.
Templemire had to get plates and screws put into his foot. He filed a workers’ comp claim and received benefits.
About a month after his surgery, Templemire was cleared for work with restrictions. He couldn’t:
- climb ladders or stairs
- drive a vehicle with a clutch
- push or pull objects, and
- stand longer than one hour without a 15-minute break.
W & M created a light duty work assignment for Templemire.
On Nov. 29, 2006, Templemire received a work assignment to wash a metal railing to get it ready for painting. However, the railing wasn’t ready to be washed, so Templemire completed other assignments.
According to court documents, Templemire was taking a break to rest his foot which was infected at this point, when W & M owner Gary McMullin confronted him about the railing not being washed. Templemire told him he’d wash it after his break was over.
Templemire says McMullin cursed at him and fired him. The employee asked the owner if he really wanted to do that because he was going to “call workman’s comp” about the situation. McMullin reportedly replied, “I don’t give a —- what you do, this is my —-ing place.”
After being fired, Templemire contacted the insurance adjuster on his comp claim. She contacted McMullin to discuss the firing. The adjuster’s notes from her conversation with the owner indicated she explained that Templemire had work restrictions that required him to take breaks. She says McMullin then “went on a tirade about [Templemire] milking his injury.”
Templemire filed a lawsuit against W & M alleging he was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers’ comp claim.
McMullin disputed Templemire’s account of what happened the day he was fired. McMullin says Templemire told him he needed a break for his foot and if he didn’t like it, he could take it up with his doctor. McMullin says he told Templemire that he didn’t work for his doctor and then fired him for insubordination.
Templemire presented evidence McMullin referred to other workers who had been injured as “whiners.” Former employees said they were belittled because they were injured. Another said he was fired shortly after filing for workers’ comp.
W & M’s discipline policy was also entered into evidence. Templemire’s firing didn’t seem to fit with the company’s progressive discipline policy.
At trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the company. But the jury had been instructed that retaliation for filing for workers’ comp had to be the exclusive cause for Templemire’s firing.
On appeal, Templemire argued the correct jury instruction should have been that retaliation for filing for workers’ comp only needed to be a contributing factor in his firing.
The Supreme Court of Missouri took up the case. It noted that state law prohibited an employer from discharging or in any way discriminating against an employee for exercising workers’ comp rights.
The court also noted its decisions in cases involving other forms of employment discrimination. Regarding the Missouri Human Rights Act, the court ruled an employee must prove his or her protected status under the law was a contributing factor to discrimination or firing.
So the state’s highest court ruled “contributing factor” should be the standard that should apply in these types of workers’ comp cases. The court wrote:
“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 practice in violation of public policy, or for exercising workers’ comp rights.”
The ruling overturns a previous Missouri Supreme Court decision from more than a decade ago. Two justices on the court dissented, saying the existing precedent that it had to be the exclusive cause of discrimination or firing should have been left alone.
In Templemire’s case, he gets a new trial.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.
(John Templemire v. W & M Welding Inc., Supreme Court of MO, No. SC93132, 4/15/14)