Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Employee Wrongful Discharge Victory for OSHA Complaint

So I had to dig back pretty far back in time to find a record of a successful wrongful discharge claim in Pennsylvania. But I did in the 1994 case of Sorge vs. Wrights Knitwear Corp. Sorge, the plaintiff, a clothing cutter in his early to mid-50's, claimed that he was wrongfully discharged by the defendant clothing company in retaliation for filing an OSHA complaint against his employer. The defendant argued that the plaintiff was terminated for submitting false time records and seeking to be paid twice for the same work. This is a classic fact patter in these types of cases. As I’ve stated before if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated you can bet big bucks that your employer will come up with evidence that it was for a different reason and usually its for a fairly salacious reason.

Sorge testified that he worked at the defendant's clothing factory for approximately 20 years. The plaintiff testified that in August 1992 he filed an OSHA complaint because he was required to cut an eight-inch high stack of material with a seven-inch knife, requiring that he press down the material with his hand bringing his fingers into dangerously close proximity to the cutting knife. The complaint was investigated by OSHA and the defendant reduced the height of the material stack, altered the cutting knife and provided steel mesh safety gloves for the cutters. Three months after the plaintiff filed the OSHA complaint, he was terminated from his job.

Not surprisingly Sorge brought a claim for wrongful termination and sought past lost wages, future wages until he located another job, some $ 16,000 in lost medical benefits and punitive damages. The defendant alleged that the plaintiff was terminated because he submitted false time records and sought to "double dip" by being paid for both hourly employment and piece rate work. The defendant produced the plaintiff's hourly time card and an in-house time study engineer who testified that he observed the plaintiff performing piece rate work at a time when he had punched in for hourly wages. The plaintiff stressed that the defendant could not produce the piece work records which would support its claim. As is often the case in wrongful discharge cases you can bet that Sorge had been doing this long before he filed the OSHA complaint with no problems from the employer. It only became a problem when the employer could use it to justify Sorge’s termination.

Three of the defendant's supervisors denied that the plaintiff's termination was related to the OSHA complaint. The jury found for the plaintiff in the amount of $ 55,000 comprised of $ 51,000 in past lost wages and $4,000 in future lost wages. The case settled for $ 51,000 prior to post-trial motions. At the time, the case created a new exception to the "Employee At Will Doctrine." The exception however, would have been determined by the court in allowing the case to go to jury trial in the first place. Timing appears to have been the key in this case. All the contrary testimony in the world for the employer could not over come that Sorge had worked there for 20 years with no problems and then gets fired 3 months after filing one complaint that cost the company money.

Read some of my prior posts on Pennsylvania wrongful termination here: "Think You Were Wrongfully Terminated?"  "Worried About Wrongful Termination?" and "Exceptions to Wrongful Discharge Lawsuits". Share this post :
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