Texas Supreme Court Tells Driver that He Must be Injured Before Collecting Punitive Damages from his Former Employer

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What is a driver to do when they repeatedly discover safety violations in their vehicles but are constantly ordered to drive the trucks anyways? What if the driver receives citations for an improperly secured load but is again asked to drive the truck without the problems being fixed? What can a driver do when they are fired for refusing to drive an unsafe truck?

In Texas, a driver who was fired after refusing to drive an unsafe truck sued his employer for wrongful termination. The driver, Louis Martinez, refused on at least four separate occasions to drive the truck in question because of safety concerns, which he reported to the appropriate management personnel. After being fired for refusing to drive the truck, he brought a lawsuit against his former employer for lost wages, mental anguish damages, and exemplary damages. See Safeshred Inc. v. Martinez, No. 10-0426, April 20, 2012.

The jury in the case heard evidence that Martinez refused to drive the truck due to an improperly secured load, cut straps and improper dunnage. Martinez put on evidence that all of these problems were reported to management who refused to correct the issues. After hearing the evidence from both sides, a jury awarded Martinez $7,569.18 in lost wages, $10,000 in mental anguish damages, and $250,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $200,000 to comply with Texas’ damages cap.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the award, finding the driver was not entitled to the $10,000 for mental anguish or the $200,000 in punitive damages. The Court stated that because Martinez was not injured by the defective conditions on the truck, he never suffered the harm required for a punitive damage award. The Court also found that Martinez was not entitled to a punitive damage award based on his firing because he was an employee-at-will making him eligible for discharge for any reason, right or wrong.

While Martinez’s damages were limited by the Texas Supreme Court, this case should serve as a warning to trucking companies to pay attention to their employees’ complaints about equipment and to respond promptly and appropriately to safety concerns. Had Martinez chosen to drive the truck and been injured when the load shifted the damages would have been justified (and likely much higher).

It is important for every company to understand how and what information can be obtained by opposing parties if a piece of equipment is involved in an accident. Complaints from employees regarding the safety of a truck would be extremely valuable to opposing litigants seeking damages resulting from an accident. If you would like more information about what information can be obtained by opposing parties and how complaints should be handled, please do not hesitate to contact the Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard P.C. Transportation Law Group.

By Larry Hall