In February 2018, Kevin Murphy and Sean Herrmann helped win a $750,000 jury verdict. Their client, Justin Driskell, was illegally terminated for reporting his boss for drinking on the job. The $681,000 in punitive damages awarded by the jury to our client is the largest amount ever issued in the Western District of North Carolina in an employment case.
Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict and held—for the first time—that employees who make internal complaints about safety violations cannot be retaliated against for doing so.
If you think you have suffered wrongful termination or retaliation, contact the retaliation attorneys at Herrmann & Murphy.
Summit Contracting fired Mr. Driskell in July 2018 after he complained to company executives about his boss’s on-the-job drinking habit. Instead of addressing this serious safety issue on a construction site, Summit told Driskell that “whatever happened at the job site should stay there.” Mr. Driskell’s supervisor then physically attacked and fired Mr. Driskell.
Unfortunately, retaliation cases don’t always turn out so well. Many courts dismiss cases even where it is clear that a company fired an employee for reporting dangerous or illegal conduct because the employee failed to use the “magic words” or report to the right person in management. The Fourth Circuit’s ruling yesterday is a big step in the right direction. However, even this court held that you can still be retaliated against for reporting issues to your boss or even their supervisor. You are on more solid ground when you complain to HR.
This is why you should contact an attorney if you are thinking about reporting dangerous or illegal conduct so can be sure to do so in a way that protects your job.
The court of appeals also overturned the trial court’s defense-friendly damages rulings. The trial court had held that Mr. Driskell could not collect his punitive damages under a tort claim and his attorneys fees under a statutory claim because they were duplicative. The court of appeals said that was wrong and the company was on the hook for both. Punitive damages are designed to punish willful conduct and to deter others from committing similar acts. An award of attorneys’ fees is intended to address costs that arise in the course of the litigation of a particular case. Because recovery of attorney’s fees under the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act requires proof different from that which gives rise to punitive damages, and the awards don’t arise from the same course of conduct, Driskell can collect both.
The result is that the company will be on the hook for more than $750,000 in damages and attorney’s fees and other companies should be on notice that retaliation won’t be tolerated in North Carolina.
If you think you have suffered unlawful retaliation, contact the whistleblower attorneys at Herrmann & Murphy right away.
For more information on this case, please see:
Herrmann & Murphy did not represent Mr. Driskell on appeal