Under a Texas Supreme Court ruling delivered last Friday, a trucker fired for refusing to drive an unsafe vehicle — saying he feared for himself and other drivers — may have fared better in the courts had he followed his employer’s demand, driven the truck and had an accident.
Trucker Louis Martinez III filed suit for wrongful termination in 2007 after he was fired for refusing to drive a truck carrying a load of steel shelving that was stacked higher than allowed and was improperly secured with broken straps, court records show.
It was the fifth time the company, Safeshred Inc., had asked him to drive an improperly loaded or permitted truck, the Supreme Court acknowledged. After pointing out the safety concerns, Martinez agreed to drive the truck but soon returned after feeling the load shift, the court said, adding that he was fired after refusing an order to return to the road.
A jury determined that Martinez, whose route for Safeshred included Austin, was improperly fired for refusing to perform an illegal act and awarded him $7,569 in lost wages (he found a new job two months later), $10,000 in mental anguish damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.
A lower appeals court later threw out the $10,000 award, ruling that such damages were not allowed in Martinez’s claim.
On Friday, the Supreme Court also tossed out the $200,000 award, ruling that Martinez did not qualify for punitive damages, either.
To receive punitive damages, Justice Debra Lehrmann wrote for the unanimous court, Martinez had to show he was fired with malice.
The court, however; rejected Martinez’s argument that malice could be shown by Safeshred’s indifference to the risk facing Martinez or the public had he driven the improperly loaded truck.
In cases involving workers terminated for refusing to perform an illegal act, the court said, malice can apply only to the act of firing, such as circulating untrue rumors about employees, interfering with their ability to find a new job or post-firing harassment.
“A defendant should be punished for the conduct that harmed the plaintiff, not for being an unsavory individual or business,” Lehrmann wrote.
The court noted a certain Catch-22 in its reasoning. Had Martinez chosen to drive the truck and been hurt, he could have sued Safeshred and sought punitive damages based on “the employer’s malicious intent in ordering the illegal act,” the ruling stated.
But by refusing to drive, Martinez never performed the illegal, and potentially dangerous, act he was ordered to perform. “Thus, allowing punitive damages based on the unrealized consequences of the illegal directive would amount to impermissibly punishing the employer for harm the plaintiff never actually endures,” Lehrmann wrote. In other words, it’s OK to be a public menace as long as someone didn’t actually get hurt.
Friday’s opinion was based on previous rulings affirming Texas as an employment-at-will state, allowing employers to fire workers “for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all,” the court said. Expanding punitive damages to actions beyond the act of firing an employee “would be an improper expansion” of the employment-at-will doctrine, the court said.
The case is Safeshred v. Martinez, 10-0426.