We recently had an article in the newsletter about the dangers of terminating someone who has filed a workers’ comp claim. The key is to make sure that the reason for the firing has absolutely nothing to do with the termination, and that you have all of your documentation in order.

A recent case decided by the Missouri Supreme Court reflects the dangers of firing a workers’ comp claimant. In this case, the court ruled that an injured worker only needed to prove that his claim was a “contributing factor” and not an “exclusive cause” of his discharge.

The background of the case, John Templemire vs. W&M Welding Inc., is as follows:

Templemire was working for the employer when he was injured in January 2006 after a large metal beam fell from a forklift and crushed his left foot.

He filed a workers’ comp claim and received benefits for his injury. He was able to return to work after his doctor placed various work restrictions on him over the course of several months, such as: climbing stairs, pushing and pulling, or standing longer than one hour without a 15-minute break.

The company put him on light duty. One day in November 2006 he was told to wash a railing, but he had to wait for another worker to finish preparing the railing for the cleaning, according to court documents. So he took a 15-minute break to rest his foot, which had become infected.

The owner of W&M Welding confronted him, cursed at him for not washing the railing and fired him on the spot, according to court documents.

After the employee called his claims adjuster to tell her he’d been fired, the adjuster called the owner and informed him that Templemire was required to take breaks to rest his foot as part of the restricted duty his doctor had put him on.

W&M Welding’s owner told the adjuster that he felt that Templemire was “milking” his injury and that Templemire “can sue him for whatever reason,” according to court records. Templemire sued, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ comp claim.

Unfortunately for the owner of the company, Templemire’s lawyers had evidence showing that he’d fired another employee who had filed a workers’ comp claim and that he had picked on employees who were injured and had not received workers’ comp benefits.
Company documents also indicated that Templemire had been a good employee with no black marks on his record prior to being fired.

At trial, a jury had found in the company’s favor, saying the workers’ comp claim was not the exclusive factor the company owner had considered when firing Templemire. But the state supreme court opined that jurors should have weighed whether his comp claim was a “contributing factor,” rather than the “exclusive cause” of his firing.
The high court found that Templemire had presented “substantial evidence” that W&M Welding discriminated against him because of his workers’ comp claim, and ordered a new trial for Templemire that would use the “contributing factor” standard.
Zero tolerance
“While this Court recognizes a fundamental difference between the purposes of the (Missouri Human Rights Act) and the workers’ compensation laws as a whole, 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 practices in violation of public policy, or for exercising workers compensation rights,” the court wrote in its opinion.

“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 (Missouri Human Rights Act) or for retaliatory discharge under the public policy exception of the at-will employment doctrine.”

While this case was in Missouri, the interpretation would likely hold in other jurisdictions as well. Firing a workers’ comp claimant is tricky and it should only be done as a result of other workplace issues, independent of the claim.

The results of this case should serve as a warning to any employer who has an issue with an employee that has filed a workers’ comp claim in the past.