Guyoungtech USA, Inc. v. Dees
On June 6, 2014 the Supreme Court of Alabama issued a lengthy opinion covering many issues related to a Retaliatory Discharge case tried in Conecuh County Circuit Court.
Dees, the employee, was injured on March 14, 2011, 4 months after she was hired. Shortly before hiring Dees HMMA reduced its orders from Guyoungtech. In November of 2010 Guyoungtech laid off 300 employees and then another 212 in May of 2011. Dees was one of the layoffs in May of 2011. As a result Dees filed the retaliatory discharge claims alleging she was fired because of her workers’ compensation in violation of § 25-5-11.1 of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. The jury order Guyoungtech to pay $1,000,000.00 in compensatory damages and $2,500,000.00 in punitive damages. The Trial Judge remitted the damages to $300,000.00 in compensatory damages and $900,000.00 in punitive damages. Dees accepted the remitted amounts and Guyoungtech appealed the decision.
Guyoungtech argued that Dees was part of a corporate layoff and not terminated, but was definitely not terminated as a result of her workers’ compensation claim. Dees argued that Guyoungtech used the layoff as a mask to conceal the wrongful termination. Dees pointed to the proximity in time and a safety director denying knowledge of her injury which seemed implausible. The Supreme Court noted that mere proximity of time is typically not enough to establish sufficient evidence in a retaliatory discharge claim. However, the jury could have found the safety director’s testimony that she/he did not know about the injury was not credible. That, in addition to the proximity was sufficient for the jury to find liability and the Supreme Court stated they were not in a position to substitute their judgment for the jury.
However, the errors as it related to the damages resulted in the Supreme Court reversing liability and ordering a new trial.
In regards to the lost wages component of the compensatory damages, the Supreme Court pointed out that no expert testified as to Dees’ lack of employability, or restricted access to the labor market, as a result of her termination. They stated that Dees’ testimony that she was under treatment and restrictions and hampered in looking for work does not provide evidence that the discharge itself rendered her less employable. The Supreme Court stated that the extent of her disability and its effect on her ability to work was part of the workers’ compensation trial, which was severed from the discharge trial, and not at issue in the discharge case. The Supreme Court then pointed out that Guyoungtech had given her a letter stating she was laid-off, and not fired, so there was no stigma of being terminated when she went to secure employment. Therefore, no evidence was present to show the termination caused Dees to be less marketable in the work force.
As to the mental anguish component of the compensatory damages, the Supreme Court pointed out the broad discretion given to the jury in determining mental anguish. However, the Supreme Court pointed to two other decisions where the employee presented evidence of mental health medication, mental health treatment, divorce, loss of home and/or inability to pay bills where one employee was awarded $30,000.00 for mental anguish and the other was award $75,000.00. The Supreme Court stated that Dees only presented evidence of concern for the stability of her marriage. Dees did not present evidence that she had lost her home, could not pay bills, or that she required mental-health treatment.
The Supreme Court also opined that the trial court erroneously admitted Mortality Tables into evidence. Guyountech argued that Dees life expectancy was not relevant to the discharge claim, as Dees offered no evidence she could never work again. The Supreme Court pointed out that Mortality Tables are admissible when there is evidence that the plaintiff suffers from permanent personal injury. Drummond Co. v. Self, 622 So. 2d 336, 337 (Ala. 1993). The Supreme Court stated that the trial court was in error when it instructed the jury to use the mortality tables if they were reasonably satisfied that the injuries were permanent when there was no expert medical testimony that the injuries were permanent.
The verdict form did not itemize the compensatory damages and both, lost wages and mental anguish, were infected by the error of allowing the mortality table into evidence. As such, the error constituted grounds for reversal.
The Supreme Court then pointed out that for a jury to award punitive damages there must be compensatory damages. Life Ins. Co. of Georgia v. Smith, 719 So. 2d 797, 806 (Ala. 1998). Based on the reversal of the compensatory damages the punitive damages were due to be reversed as well. However, the Supreme Court offered guidance to the trial court upon remand as to the issue of punitive damages. At the trial level Dees’ argument for punitive damages was based on Guyountech’s failure to report some smaller workers’ compensation claim despite Dees’ claim being properly reported. The Supreme Court stated that punitive damages for the purpose of punishing a defendant for harm it did to others, not the plaintiff, is not supported by case law. Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 354, (2007). As a result, the Supreme Court pointed out that punitive damages must be based on harm to Dees, not potential harm to other individuals not a party to the litigation.
As a result of the error involving the compensatory and punitive damages a new trial was necessary because the question of damages and liability were too intertwined for the jury to just consider the issue of damages.
MY TWO CENTS
It is always important to sever your workers’ compensation trial from the discharge trial to assure there is no confusion that the disability, or inability to work due to the disability, should not be considered when determining damages in the discharge trial. Even if the judge instructs the jury not to consider the disability you can almost be sure that it will factor in if they are allowed to hear it. This will help keep the focus of the damages in the discharge trial on the termination only.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The article was written by Joshua G. Holden, Esq. a Member of Fish Nelson, LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation and related liability matters. Mr. Holden is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating an attorney can receive. Holden and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields.
If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-332-1428.