» Court Finds for Wrongfully Fired Employee

Court Finds for Wrongfully Fired Employee

The Austin Court of Appeals found that an employee who was fired for refusing to illegally drive an unsafe commercial vehicle can collect punitive damages. Employment attorney Gregory D. Jordan, who represented the employee, offers pertinent comment.

A recent opinion from the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, at Austin ruled that an employee who is fired for refusing to commit a criminal act can recover punitive damages.

Safeshred, Inc. fired Louis Martinez after he refused to drive a commercial vehicle he found to be unsafe and noncompliant with federal and state regulations. Martinez sued Safeshred, alleging he had been terminated for refusing to commit an illegal act. The initial lawsuit filed by Martinez asserted an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. After a jury trial, the trial court entered judgment awarding Martinez $7,569.18 in economic damages for lost wages and benefits, $10,000 in compensatory damages for non-economic losses, including mental anguish, and $200,000 in exemplary or punitive damages. Safeshred appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the awards of economic and exemplary damages and reversed the award of compensatory damages for non-economic losses.

“I think it’s crucial that an employee should be able to recover punitive damages if he or she is fired for refusing to commit a criminal act,” explained Austin-area employment attorney Gregory D. Jordan who represented Martinez, “That type of conduct by an employer is despicable. The Austin Court of Appeals rightly recognized the important deterrent effect of punitive damages.”

Martinez began work delivering documents for Safeshred’s sister company, Safesite, on September 25, 2007. After only three days of work, Martinez was promoted to a position driving commercial vehicles for Safeshred. At Safeshred, Martinez’s responsibilities included driving an eighteen-wheeler hauling a flatbed trailer stacked high with 18-foot long steel upright and heavy metal shelves.

On numerous occasions, Martinez reported safety violations in the condition of the flatbed trailer or in the way in which the steel uprights and shelves were secured to the flatbed trailer by his employer, but his employer consistently told him to go ahead and haul the load. The situation grew progressively worse, as Martinez was asked by Safeshred to deliver increasingly dangerous and illegal loads of uprights and shelving. When Martinez determined that it was simply too dangerous to drive one of the illegal loads, he refused to drive the truck and his employer fired him. When the employer had another person drive the truck, the 18-foot long steel uprights and metal shelves broke loose and crashed through the rear window of the cab. Amazingly, no one was killed.

Gregory D. Jordan is an Austin business attorney, Austin employment lawyer, and Austin business litigation lawyer. To learn more, visit Theaustintriallawyer.com.

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