There but for the grace of God, goes the expression, because you apparently aren't going to get any help from the system. A story coming from Austin, Texas says a truck driver fired from his job for refusing to haul unsafe loads filed suit against the company, claiming wrongful termination. At trial, a jury awarded him $7,569 in lost wages, $10,000 in mental anguish damages and $250,000 in exemplary or punitive damages.
The latter was later reduced to $200,000 to comply with a statutory cap. Sometime later, a lower appeals court threw out the $10,000 award, and more recently, the Texas Supreme Court tossed out the $200,000 award, ruling the driver did not qualify for punitive damages, either.
There are all sorts of probably perfectly good reasons why he shouldn't qualify for punitive damages, but the sad part is, the company gets off pretty well scott-free for firing a guy who was diligent enough not to put the public or himself at risk by hauling the load -- not once, but on several occasions, court records say.
Reports from several sources say the driver had, on as many as five occasions, reported safety violations to the company but was ordered to haul loads of metal shelving and other hardware that was stacked too high and improperly secured -- with broken straps.
Court records show that on a day in October, 2007 he had been issued several citations for safety violations. A day later, he was asked to drive the same truck again before the problems had been repaired. He refused to drive the truck and was given a choice, drive it or go home.
According to an account in Austin's American-Statesman, the driver eventually agreed to drive the truck after pointing out his concerns, but soon returned to the terminal after feeling the load shift, the court said, adding that he was fired after refusing an order to return to the road.
In an account on the driver's lawyer's website, the attorney says the employer found someone else to drive the truck, and sure enough, the cargo broke free and crashed through the rear window of the cab.
I don't want to get into the finer points of law that define eligibility for punitive damages, or even mental anguish, but I do want to question where a driver might turn for protection when the consequences of his morally correct actions result in his termination. Over and above the immediate losses, there are the negative consequences of an employment record showing a firing.
CSA Fails to Protect Drivers
CSA could have addressed such situations, but it lets drivers down in a big way here. A driver, faced with a no-go situation, is forced to duke it out with the employer and hope for a satisfactory outcome. As this case illustrates, that isn't always a foregone conclusion.
We've seen how spectacularly unsuccessful whistle-blower legislation has proven. And there's no mechanism I know of where a driver can report a "potential" violation, i.e., one that hasn't yet occurred. With the load sitting in the yard and still sitting on the truck, what's the DOT to do?
The irony here, as noted by Chuck Lindell of the American-Statesman, is that the driver may have fared better in the courts had he followed his employer's demand, driven the truck and had an accident.
We ask much of truck drivers, and we foist a great deal of responsibility onto their shoulders, but we fail to give them good authority to say no. What's worse; we offer no protection whatsoever for those who do the right thing in refusing unsafe or illegal work.
The driver is this case reportedly found another job within two months (Two months to find a driving job today? I wonder how his firing affected his job search?), and his $7,569 lost-wages settlement seems about right for two months off the job. If that's the best a driver can hope for when refusing to do something unsafe and/or illegal, then we have failed our workforce.
For an additional point of view, read this account of the case found on BusinessInsurance.com. It argues the court was correct in letting the company off the hook for firing the driver.