A federal appeals court affirms a lower court’s ruling that a Connecticut trucker who refused to haul unpermitted overweight loads was wrongfully terminated by his employer.
On Feb. 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with a district court’s decision awarding Connecticut truck driver Michael Kennedy more than $260,000 in a wrongful termination case. Both courts denied Harwinton, Conn.-based Supreme Forest Products’ motion to dismiss and motion for a new trial.
Kennedy v. Supreme Forest Products
The lawsuit against Supreme was first filed in December 2014. Kennedy was a driver for Supreme, a company that is involved in construction, land clearance and supplying construction materials, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit states Kennedy began working for Supreme in April 2002 as a trucker delivering bulk mulch and other building supplies to locations throughout southern New England, New York and New Jersey. The lawsuit claims that Kennedy had a positive experience with the company for the first 10 years or so, being considered the most senior and trusted driver by 2014.
Toward the end of 2013, a general manager and dispatcher for Supreme instructed Kennedy and other drivers that Connecticut was going to increase the maximum allowable gross vehicle weight from 80,000 pounds to 100,000 pounds. The lawsuit alleges that the company then began to load trucks with larger, denser mulch that typically exceed 80,000 pounds. However, drivers could not confirm the weight because they were kept in the dark about how much the load weighed.
Drivers grew suspicious of Supreme’s claim of statewide increased weights because the 80,000-pound limit is a federal regulation. Additionally, drivers regularly travel to other states, voiding any changes specific to Connecticut. Kennedy confirmed with the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles CDL permit department that no such change in regulations was planned.
In April 2014, Kennedy was scheduled to haul a 70-yard load of mulch. In the past, Kennedy only hauled 60-yard loads since anything greater than that would exceed 80,000 pounds. Kennedy’s load suspension gauge in his truck confirmed those suspicions. Appropriately, Kennedy notified the dispatcher that he would not haul the load.
The dispatcher was told by the general manager to have Kennedy haul the load and they would discuss the matter afterwards. Kennedy refused. The dispatcher advised Kennedy that hauling more than 80,000 pounds would not be in violation of the law. Kennedy disagreed and got the dispatcher to concede that the load was in fact illegal.
Kennedy’s suit claims the company’s attempts to convince him to haul unlawful overweight loads didn’t stop there. He was told that if he ran into trouble the company would take care of everything. Standing his ground, Kennedy continued to refuse the load. He was eventually assigned another load.
Supreme tried to do the same thing to Kennedy the next day. When approached, the dispatcher told Kennedy he was the only one refusing the overweight loads. Presented with the choices of accepting the load or going home, Kennedy and the dispatcher took the matter to the general manager. Kennedy was advised that the owner of the company gave direct orders to send him home.
A few days later, Kennedy was fired. Kennedy filed his lawsuit in December 2014.
Jury and higher court sides with driver
Taking the trial all the way to the end, a jury ruled in favor of Kennedy. In May 2017, the jury awarded the driver more than $430,000, including nearly $12,000 for actual damages and $425,000 in punitive damages. That was later reduced to $250,000 in punitive damages. Supreme immediately appealed. The $12,000 award for actual damages was not reduced.
In its appeal, Supreme argued that Kennedy failed to prove that he would have driven on an interstate highway where the 80,000-pound maximum weight applies had he accepted the load. An appellate court disagreed, essentially stating that it was implied.
“Such an inference is justified based on common sense and geography: testimony demonstrated that Kennedy refused to transport two loads, both originating in Southington, Connecticut, and destined for Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Hartford, Connecticut,” the court opined. “We need only look at a map to determine that the most direct routes on these trips involve the use of the interstate system.”
Second, Supreme argued that no reasonable jury could have found it liable for punitive damages because there was no evidence of malice and intent. With intent to discriminate alone not sufficient, a jury must decide whether or not there was intent to violate the law. Again, the appellate panel sided with Kennedy.
“Here, trial testimony suggested that SFP immediately tried to cover up the true circumstances under which Kennedy left the company,” the court explains. “For instance, Tracy O’Connell, SFP’s ‘human resources person,’ testified that Kennedy’s supervisor informed her that Kennedy had quit and instructed her to file paperwork accordingly. An inference of willful discrimination is further supported by trial evidence establishing that SFP distributed an employee handbook discussing applicable regulations — thus demonstrating knowledge of related law.”
Lastly, Supreme disputed the punitive damages, claiming the amended $250,000 amount is excessive. The court pointed out three reasons why that assessment is wrong. First, $250,000 is not disproportionate to the “potential harm” caused by losing a job. Second, $250,000 is “precisely the sum authorized by the United States Congress.” Third, the company did not claim that $250,000 would result in financial ruin. Therefore, punitive damages for Kennedy were upheld.
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