Proving Compensatory Damages in a Worker's Compensation Retaliation Case

A worker's compensation retaliation case in Alabama provides guidance regarding the type of evidence needed to support compensatory damages awards in these particular types of cases. There are certain types of evidence that are simply not permissible when trying to establish, for instance, lost earnings and mental anguish.

The claims against the manufacturer for retaliation

The plaintiff in the case was an employee of a manufacturer who supplied auto parts to Hyundai who was terminated, she contends, in retaliation for making a claim for worker’s compensation benefits. According to the evidence at trial, the plaintiff had suffered an injury on the job and, the day after she returned to work, she was told she was being laid off. She had been given restrictions, limiting her to the use of only one arm. That type of retaliation is a violation of Alabama statutory law.

Employer's alleged reduction in force

Her employer argued that she was simply laid off as part of a general reduction in force because the company's parts orders had decreased by 50%. In fact, according to the evidence at trial, the company had reduced its work force through lay-offs from 300 employees to 212. If this was the legitimate reason for the employee's termination, then the adverse employment action may have been justified.

The jury verdict and damages award

The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict for the employee. The damages award consisted of $1 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. The trial court ultimately reduced the awards to $300,000.00 in compensatory damages and $900,000.00 in punitive damages. The case was furthered appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, where the verdict was reversed and the case was sent back to the trial court.

Why the verdict was overturned

Although the Supreme Court felt it could not reverse the jury's finding that the company had retaliated, it did hold that there was insufficient evidence to support the damages awards. The compensatory damages claim was based on future earnings and mental anguish. The Supreme Court also found error in the fact that the trial court admitted into evidence a mortality table without the necessary expert evidence that the plaintiff had suffered a permanent injury.

The lack of evidence to support her loss of future earnings claim

However, the employee made no effort to find new employment. Furthermore, when she was terminated, the reason given was a reduction in force, so there was no obvious stigma attached to her firing that would have impacted her ability to seek other employment. In light of these facts, there was insufficient evidence upon which the jury could have awarded compensatory damages for any loss of future earnings.

The failure to prove mental anguish damages

All of the evidence offered in support of her claim for mental anguish was purely subjective. She testified that she worried about providing for her family and how that might affect her marriage. However, she did not provide any expert testimony that she had suffered any permanent mental injury of any kind. Also, a mortality table was admitted into evidence without expert testimony to support it.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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