A recent case by the Missouri Court of Appeals emphasized the role that sovereign immunity plays in the state’s workers’ compensation law.
Worker Claims Termination Was Retaliation for Filing Workers’ Compensation Claim
The case involved a worker at the University of Missouri, the state’s public college. After several months of complaints from her subordinates, the worker’s supervisors decided to fire her. They set the termination date for two weeks later. Three days after making this decision, though, the worker was at a work-related conference and got in a car accident. She filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was approved, and went on medical leave.
When she returned to work, she was fired. She then filed a lawsuit against the University, claiming that she was being terminated in retaliation for filing the workers’ compensation claim.
Importantly, her wrongful termination claim demanded compensatory and punitive damages – financial reimbursement for her losses.
Sovereign Immunity: No Money Damages from Public Employers for Workers’ Compensation Retaliation
After the trial court dismissed the claims for compensation and punitive damages, the worker appealed. The Missouri Court of Appeals, in Willie v. Curators of University of Missouri, affirmed the dismissal because of sovereign immunity.
We have covered the notion of sovereign immunity on our blog, before: In a period of only two weeks, a St. Joseph Transit bus and a school bus were involved in accidents. Both cases raised questions of whether the victims would be able to recover compensation from the city or school district for their injuries.
The basic rule of sovereign immunity is that the government cannot be made to pay money damages, unless it expressly waives its immunity.
The worker in Willie claimed that Missouri has waived its sovereign immunity for retaliation lawsuits stemming from workers’ compensation claims. Specifically, she pointed to Missouri Statute 105.850, which emphasizes Missouri’s sovereign immunity against lawsuits. The worker argued that 105.850 should only apply to Chapter 105 of Missouri’s laws, not to Chapter 287, where workers’ compensation laws are found.
The appeals court disagreed, pointing to no fewer than three earlier Missouri cases that had decided that it did apply to workers’ compensation law.
What This Means for Claims Against Public Institutions
The outcome of Willie v. Curators of University of Missouri was not surprising. However, it serves as a reminder that public or government workers who have been unlawfully fired for exercising their workers’ compensation rights can only get equitable relief by filing a lawsuit: Rather than getting money damages and compensation for being retaliated against, they can only get an injunction that gets them their job back.
Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at the Smith Law Office Serve St. Joseph
The personal injury and workers’ compensation lawyers at the Smith Law Office strive to legally represent injured workers, including those in the public sector. Just because public employees are not able to recover money damages for being retaliated against does not mean that they cannot benefit from equitable relief.
Contact us online or call our law office in St. Joseph at (816) 875-9373.