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ALJ Awards Trucker Punitive Damages After Being Fired for Refusing to Drive in Dangerous Conditions

On March 15, 2010, Administrative Law Judge Daniel Leland awarded Cynthia Ferguson over $151,000 including $75,000 in punitive damages, holding that she was terminated in retaliation for refusing to drive in hazardous conditions.  On a cross country trip, Ferguson encountered extremely inclement weather approaching Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Ferguson observed a truck in a ditch and another forced to stop in the middle of the road due to black ice.  She also received reports from other drivers advising her not to cross the pass until the conditions improved.  Ferguson told her employer of the situation and her decision to stop driving.  Her employer pressured her to continue on and later terminated her.

Judge Leland held that a reasonable person in Ferguson’s position would have concluded that the weather conditions presented a serious danger and if Ferguson had not stopped, she would have violated federal regulations prohibiting the operation of commercial motor vehicles in conditions that are likely to cause an accident or breakdown.  The employer argued that it fired Ferguson for carrying a negative balance with the company. 

Judge Leland acknowledged that the negative balance could be a legitimate reason to terminate Ferguson but found that comments made by Ferguson’s supervisor and the temporal proximity between Ferguson’s protected activity and termination established a mixed motive.  As a result of her employer’s “total disregard not only for her and her co-driver’s safety but for the safety of other drivers on the road,” Judge Leland awarded Ferguson $75,000 in punitive damages, $50,000 for emotional distress, back pay, reinstatement, costs, and attorney’s fees.  The case is Ferguson v. New Prime, Inc. and a copy of the order is available here.

For information about The Employment Law Group® law firm’s Commercial Motor Carrier Whistleblower Practice, click here.

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