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Former Portneuf Mechanic Awarded $485,000 after Being Fired for Reporting Unsafe Helicopters

Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge William Dorsey ruled in favor of helicopter mechanic Mark Van who was fired by Portneuf Medical Center (an Idaho hospital) for repeatedly raising concerns about violations of FAA safety standards in their helicopter air ambulance program.  The court noted that Van’s dedication to safety is primarily rooted in an experience in 2001 where Van and his son rescued a pilot from the flaming wreckage of a downed helicopter, saving the pilot’s life. 

The events that led to his termination began in February 2005 when he found that ice had not been removed from one of the helicopters.  This led him to question whether all pilots were taking adequate, routine precautions to ensure that helicopters would not fly with ice, snow, or frost on its control surfaces.  He then reported the ongoing problem with cold weather operations to his superiors at Portneuf.  Shortly thereafter Van was harassed by a pilot who flew an air ambulance with ice on its rotor blades.  Van’s complaints went nowhere, so he took the matter to Portneuf’s Human Resources department, which also resulted in no corrective action.

On April 19, 2005, shortly after Van had completed an exhaustive inspection regimen on a helicopter, and worked on modifying the helicopter so that pilots could use night vision goggles, he was fired.  Seemingly at odds with Portneuf’s decision to terminate Van was that he received a positive performance evaluation and merit salary increase just days before his firing. 

The Judge concluded, “Raising air safety issues kindled the rupture that led to Van‘s termination.”  By firing Van, Portneuf had violated § 519 of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), which prohibits employers from firing, demoting, suspending, or otherwise retaliating against a whistleblower who reports safety violations regarding aircraft.

Accordingly, Judge Dorsey ordered the following:

1. Portneuf Medical Center must pay to Mark Van:

  • Lost compensation (including back pay and fringe benefits) in the amount of $287,438.31;
  • Compensatory damages for his emotional distress in the amount of $100,000;
  • Front pay in the amount of $98,576 since reinstatement was not practical;
  • Interest on these amounts compounded quarterly; and
  • Costs and expenses, including attorney‘s fees and expert witness fees.

2. Portneuf Medical Center must expunge from Van‘s personnel file all negative or derogatory information that pertains to the firing.

3. Portneuf Medical Center must deliver a copy of this decision and order directly to Life Flight pilots, medical flight staff, mechanics, and dispatchers within 7 days.  Portneuf also must prominently post copies of this decision at every location where it posts other notices to employees that relate to employment law (e.g., wage and hour, civil rights in employment, age discrimination, and family medical leave).  It must be posted for no fewer than 60 days; Portneuf must take all reasonable steps to ensure that no copy of the decision is altered or defaced.

For more information on AIR-21 or reporting unsafe aircraft, click here.

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