Appeal from DeKalb Circuit Court. (CV-92-232). David A. Rains, TRIAL JUDGE.
Released for Publication August 25, 1995.
Kennedy, Shores, Ingram, Cook, and Butts, JJ., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kennedy
The defendant, the Heil Company ("Heil"), appeals from a judgment on a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Crowley, based on Crowley's claim that he was fired in retaliation for his filing a claim for workers' compensation benefits.
The issues in this case are: (1) whether Crowley offered substantial evidence to show a discharge in retaliation for his filing the workers' compensation claim; (2) whether Crowley presented clear and convincing evidence entitling him to punitive damages; and (3) if so, whether the punitive damages award was excessive.
Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Crowley, as we are required to do, we find that the evidence tended to show the following: In September 1989, Crowley was hired by Heil as a painter. Heil manufactures garbage trucks and large bins for storing material to be recycled. Crowley's job was to prepare a vehicle or bin for painting and then to paint it with a paint sprayer. Based on his performance, Crowley was chosen to prepare and paint garbage trucks to be displayed at industrial truck shows. Crowley worked for Heil for 15 months before his injury. During this time, the only notation in his file concerning his work habits was that he had taken too much time on a break one day. During this 15-month period, Crowley timely received every raise for which he was eligible, indicative of an employee's doing a good job.
On January 28, 1991, Crowley injured his back when he fell from a garbage truck that he was preparing to paint. Heil's physician ordered treatment with bedrest and prescription drugs for Crowley's back injury, later diagnosed as bulging disc and lumbar strain. After having continuing difficulties, Crowley was treated by two other physicians. Crowley also underwent physical therapy for his injury.
Crowley received workers' compensation benefits. He was also paid for the days he missed because of his injury and for the time he spent receiving treatment.
Crowley was placed on "light duty" status with "full restrictions" when he returned to work. According to Heil's plant manager, placing an injured employee on "light duty" status is cheaper and is, therefore, preferable to paying workers' compensation benefits. "Light duty" consisted of answering the telephone. However, the telephone that Crowley was to answer was
connected to a line inside the company and it never rang. The employees placed on light duty were not allowed to read or to do anything other than sit in an office to answer a phone that did not ring. The employees were allowed two breaks. No employee was allowed to sit or rest on the couch located in the office without a written note from a physician. Another injured employee placed on light duty status testified that this treatment made him "stir crazy." Crowley testified that it had the same effect on him.
After Crowley was taken off restrictions and was able to return to regular duty, Heil placed him in a department where he would do "touch up" paint work and would operate a grinding machine. Touch up work included repainting small areas of the trucks or bins, and grinding work included lifting a machine to grind or smooth out parts of a truck. A former Heil supervisor, Houston Eakins, testified that Crowley was placed in those departments because touch up and grinding work would be difficult for Crowley, given his back injury. Eakins testified that certain Heil managers thought Crowley would quit if the work became too difficult and that it was Heil's intent to give Crowley strenuous jobs so as to induce him to quit.
For the period between his injury and his release, Crowley received several disciplinary reports from supervisors at Heil. The alleged violations included: leaving work before his shift ended; failing to comply with a safety rule; and missing too many days of work. According to Eakins, he was told by Heil supervisors to find a way to write reports on Crowley so that Heil could suspend or terminate Crowley. Crowley was subsequently fired.
A jury awarded Crowley $50,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Heil filed a motion for a JNOV; a motion to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment; and a motion for a new trial, or, in the alternative, a ...