Peters v. Rivers Edge Mining, Inc., No. 34272 (W.Va. 06/04/09).
Ruling: The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict awarding a miner who injured his wrist nearly $2 million in damages in a workers' compensation retaliatory discrimination suit.
What it means: In West Virginia, workers' compensation claims alleging wrongful termination and workers' compensation discrimination are not preempted by federal law where the claims do not require an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.
A coal miner broke his wrist on the job and was taken off work by his doctor. When he was released to return to work with medical restrictions, he and his employer disagreed on the date of his return. The employer claimed he reported for work a day late, thus violating the "two-day rule" of the collective bargaining agreement. The miner was terminated. The miner alleged his employer retaliated against him for filing a workers' compensation claim. A jury awarded the miner $885,107 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The employer argued the miner's claims were preempted by federal law and that the punitive damages award was unwarranted and excessive. The Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the award, finding that the miner demonstrated his termination was in retaliation for filing his workers' comp claim and that the employer acted maliciously in response to its "suspicion" of the validity of his claim.
The court determined the employer's conduct rose to an egregious level and justified an award of punitive damages when it placed the miner under surveillance after his doctor initially did not approve his return to work; when the employer did not respond to his requests to return to work but kept him under surveillance; and when the employer was aware of the miner's ability to return to work for six days but gave him five hours notice to get there. The court noted that the miner's claim was deemed to be legitimate and credible, as he was granted an 11 percent permanent partial disability award for his wrist. It further noted the miner had no history of disciplinary problems, and the employer terminated him for his first act of alleged misconduct.
The court also rejected the employer's argument that the punitive damages award was excessive and upheld the jury's $1 million determination. The employer argued that its conduct was not "reprehensible" because it simply discharged the miner based on its belief that he had violated the "two-day rule" of the collective bargaining agreement. The court explained that the amount was reasonably related to the harm sustained, noting the employer was indifferent to the miner's health and safety in doubting the credibility of his workers' compensation claim, placing him under surveillance, and terminating him for missing work as a result of his work-related injury.
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July 30, 2009
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