Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down this week pertaining to corporations and unions are receiving a lot of media attention.
But a curious decision rendered by the Missouri Supreme Court in April is likely to have more serious consequences for local businesses.
In overturning a long-standing precedent, the Missouri high court lowered the standard of proof required of employees with workers’ compensation retaliation claims. The decision is likely to lead to more cases being filed and more settlements of dubious claims to avoid the costs of protracted litigation.
Under the old causation standard, an employee was required to prove that the exercise of the employee’s rights under the workers’ compensation statute was the “sole, exclusive factor” in the employee’s termination or discipline.
Under the new standard, all an employee needs to show is that the filing of a workers’ compensation claim was a “contributing factor” to the adverse employment action. That means an employer may be held liable even if the employer had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating or disciplining the employee.
In some respects, the court’s recent decision is not surprising. Since 2007, the court has been steadily chipping away at established law in employment cases making it easier for employees to prevail in lawsuits against their employers by lowering the standard of proof.
One defense lawyer called the court’s recent decision a “clean sweep” of the employment law arena by imposing the minimalist “contributing factor” causation standard in just about every type of employment case.
The result of this trend is that all of Missouri’s employment cases will now be decided under a legal interpretation that is at odds with federal courts and with that of the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s troubling to us. So is the court’s willingness to toss aside settled law in employment cases.
No one should be discriminated against for exercising their legal rights. But workers were adequately protected under the old legal standard in this case and the other employment cases the court overturned.
The practical impact of the court’s decision is going to be an increase in frivolous lawsuits and a tougher climate to operate a business.