In July 2011, a Pacific Gas & Electric line crew was told to repair a broken electrical pole in Santa Cruz County. Whenever possible, the company tries to perform repairs without interrupting customers’ electrical service, and their supervisor said the pole could be safely repaired without cutting power. While they were working, however, a cross arm broke sending two live, high-voltage wires plunging down and coming within inches of touching. If they had, there would have been a disastrous explosion.
No one was injured, but one member of the crew was left with serious doubts about his supervisor’s judgment. He later learned that another crew had refused to perform the repair unless the power was cut. And, when subsequent repairs were done on the same line, that crew’s supervisor had cleared them to cut power to around 100 customers.
That crewman was an eight-year veteran with the company, and he admits his supervisor made a judgment call. Yet he didn’t feel safe at work anymore. He developed depression, anxiety and panic attacks. He took a month of medical leave.
He also filed a safety complaint, and he believes that was the reason he was fired in the midst of his leave. His supervisor terminated him in a voice mail.
The lineman filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, and a jury has just awarded him more than $1 million in compensation for what they decided was his supervisor’s retaliation against him for having blown the whistle.
In order to prevail in court, the lineman had to demonstrate that he had filed his safety complaint in good faith, and that retaliation for that complaint played a substantial role in his termination. He apparently succeeded, as the jury awarded him $595,615 in lost wages and benefits, another $500,000 for the emotional distress he suffered, and payment of his legal fees.
A spokesperson for PG&E declined to comment except to say it respectfully disagrees with the jury and is awaiting several rulings from the judge.
The former PG&E lineman stressed that safety is taken seriously at the utility, and that workers generally do their jobs safely and efficiently. “If there is an issue at PG&E, it's at a management level,” he said.
Unfortunately, it often is. Firing people in retaliation for reporting illegal conduct is only too common, and it’s something only management can do.
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel, "PG&E worker wins $1 million in Santa Cruz wrongful termination lawsuit," Stephen Baxter, Dec. 15, 2013