JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court overturned 30 years of precedent with a ruling Tuesday that gives greater legal protections to injured workers who subsequently are fired from their jobs.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that employees no longer have to prove that workers' compensation claims were the exclusive cause for their dismissal in order to win lawsuits alleging retaliation. Instead, the court said employees must show only that workers' compensation claims were a contributing factor in the subsequent dismissal from their job.
The ruling puts cases alleging retaliatory firings for workers' compensation claims on par with the state's current standards for cases alleging retaliation against whistleblowers or workplace discrimination based on such factors as race, sex or age.
"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 MHRA" or Missouri Human Rights Act, the Supreme Court said in an opinion written by Judge George Draper III.
The case was closely watched by both business groups and attorneys who represent injury victims. It could have reverberations in the Republican-led state legislature, which has tried for years to change the contributing-factor standard in workplace discrimination cases but has been rebuffed by vetoes from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his group may urge legislators to overturn Tuesday's court decision by changing the state law upon which it was based. The chamber had argued in a court brief that the old standard should have been upheld, or alternatively, changed to require that people show workers' compensation claims are a motivating factor for their dismissal.
"Missouri employers have got to beware of this ruling," Mehan said. "It allows speculation to lead to litigation a lot quicker than before."
The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys had urged the Supreme Court to abandon the exclusive-cause standard for lawsuits alleging retaliation for workers' compensation claims. Attorneys for the group described the court's ruling as a victory for employees.
"A worker still is going to have an uphill battle," said association executive director Sara Schuett. "But at least now it's not an impossible burden to prove."
Missouri law doesn't explicitly set forth a standard of proof in such lawsuits. It simply states that "no employer or agent shall discharge or in any way discriminate against any employee for exercising any of his rights" under the workers' compensation law.
The Supreme Court adopted the exclusive-cause standard in a 1984 case and reaffirmed that position in 1998. But all of the judges on the Supreme Court have changed since then, and the current judges said their predecessors got it wrong.
Draper wrote that the law's wording barring discrimination "in any way" against an employee who files a workers' compensation claim is more in line with it being a contributing factor rather an exclusive one.
Judge Zel Fischer, who was joined in dissent by Judge Paul Wilson, said his colleagues were encroaching on the powers of the legislature. Fischer said lawmakers had embraced the exclusive-cause standard by not overturning it — as they had other specific Supreme Court cases — when they rewrote Missouri's workers' compensation laws in 2006.
"Even if the 'contributing factor' standard is the better rule, this Court should not usurp the legislative function by re-deciding settled questions of statutory construction due solely to a change of heart," Fischer wrote.