Owner of two Ohio trucking companies ordered to pay whistleblowers

By Clarissa Hawes, Land Line staff writer | 11/20/2013

A judge has ordered the owner of two Ohio-based trucking companies to pay his former drivers more than $300,000 after he was found to have violated the whistleblower provisions under the Surface Transportation Act of 1982.

It’s been more than 10 years since the two drivers were allegedly fired for raising safety concerns.

In a consent judgment reached in October, Robert R. Custer, owner of two companies – Star Air Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, now defunct, and Akron Reserve Ammunition Inc. – has been ordered to pay the two drivers $302,000 over a three-year period. If the owner defaults on the terms of the deal, he could be ordered to pay the full amount of the judgment, which was more than $685,700.

Custer must also give the two drivers “neutral job references” if contacted by prospective employers, and must expunge the two drivers’ employment records of all references related to this action.

Custer, Star Air and Akron Reserve Ammunition, are also enjoined from “discriminating against, interfering with, restraining, or coercing any employee because the employee has engaged in activity protected by the Surface Transportation Assistance Act.”

In 2012, The U.S. Department of Labor was forced to file a lawsuit jointly and severally against Star Air, later adding Akron Reserve Ammunition, Inc., and Custer after failing to comply with a final decision issued by the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board on Dec. 19, 2011. It required the company to pay the drivers more than $612,000 and reinstate them to their former positions. The company was also ordered to “take what affirmative action is necessary to abate all violations of the Department of Transportation regulations.”

The former employees, who worked primarily as commissioned ammunition sales representatives for Star Air, also drove the ammunition to gun shows in box trucks around the U.S. on weekends.

According to court documents, in January 2003 one of the drivers for North Canton, OH-based Star Air was stopped on his way to a gun show in Virginia. The employee was cited by the West Virginia State Police for hauling a load in excess of 10,000 pounds without a Class A commercial driver’s license; operating an overweight trailer; driving a commercial vehicle without displaying the company’s name and DOT number; and driving without a logbook.

Court documents state the Star Air trucks loaded with quantities of ammunition were classified as hazardous under the regulations and failed to display hazmat placards.

After the first employee was cited, he then called another Star Air employee on his way to a gun show in Illinois – also driving a box truck. Both employees refused to continue driving until the violations were remedied and were later fired.

According to one employee’s testimony, the company’s owner told him, “This didn’t really happen very often, and it would be a big mess to weave through it and figure out what the law really wanted us to do. And it was cheaper to keep going along as we have been going along.”

The employees then filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces the whistleblower provisions under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act. The whistleblower provisions prevent companies from retaliating against employees who raise safety concerns.

“OSHA will continue to defend America’s truck drivers against unscrupulous employers who unlawfully retaliate against drivers who assert their right to drive safely,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in a statement about the consent judgment.

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