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Guyoungtech USA, Inc. v. Dees

Supreme Court of Alabama

June 6, 2014

Guyoungtech USA, Inc.
v.
Elaine Dees

Released for Publication January 20, 2015.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from Conecuh Circuit Court. (CV-11-900045). Dawn Wiggins Hare, Trial Judge.

For Appellant: Forrest S. Latta, Kathryn M. Willis, and Taylor N. Barr of Burr & Forman LLP, Mobile.

For Appellee: Max Cassady of Cassady & Cassady, P.C., Fairhope; and Mark J. Upton of Daniell, Upton & Perry, P.C., Daphne.

Amici Curiae Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee and Manufacture Alabama, in support of the appellant: Matthew C. McDonald of Jones Walker LLP, Mobile.

MOORE, Chief Justice. Wise, J., concurs. Murdock, J., concurs specially. Stuart, Bolin, and Bryan, JJ., concur in the result. Parker and Main, JJ., dissent.

OPINION

Page 378

MOORE, Chief Justice.

Elaine Dees sued Guyoungtech USA, Inc. (" Guyoungtech" ), in the Conecuh Circuit Court, alleging retaliatory discharge. See § 25-5-11.1, Ala. Code 1975. A jury awarded Dees $1 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. The trial court denied Guyoungtech's posttrial motion for a judgment as a matter of law (" JML" ) or, alternatively, for a new trial but remitted the awards to $300,000 in compensatory damages and $900,000 in punitive damages, which Dees accepted. Guyoungtech appeals. Because we conclude that Guyoungtech is entitled to a new trial, we do not address the denial of its motion for a JML.

I. Facts

Guyoungtech manufactures automotive parts for Hyundai Motors Manufacturing Alabama (" HMMA" ) at a plant in Castleberry. On November 17, 2010, Guyoungtech hired Dees, who was then 28 years old, to inspect parts shipped to the plant from South Korea. Dees worked a 12-hour shift from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. six days a week and was paid a base rate of $9.25 per hour.

On March 14, 2011, nearly four months after being hired, Dees fell and injured her left wrist while performing her job. Guyoungtech sent Dees to Dr. Mark Roberts for an examination. She returned to work in a partial cast but was able to use her left hand and arm. At a follow-up visit on April 4, Dr. Roberts placed Dees's left arm in a splint, referred her to an orthopedic specialist, and ordered that she work no more than eight hours a day and not lift more than three pounds. As a result, when she returned to work on April 5, Dees could effectively work with only one arm. On April 6, Dees was laid off.

Previously, on October 23, 2010, citing receipt of " a lot of defective parts" from Guyoungtech, HMMA had informed Guyoungtech that it would be reducing its orders of the affected parts by 50% and acquiring those parts from other suppliers. To compensate for this loss of business, Guyoungtech reduced its workforce through layoffs and attrition from 300 employees in November 2010 to 212 in May 2011. Guyoungtech contends that Dees was laid off as part of this reduction in force and not because she had applied for worker's compensation benefits.

II. Standard of Review

" In a motion for a new trial, the movant normally tests the weight of the evidence, not its sufficiency." Shadwrick v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 578 So.2d 1075, 1077 (Ala. 1991). The trial court's ruling on a motion for a new trial " should not be disturbed on appeal unless the record plainly and palpably shows that the trial court erred and that some legal right has been abused." McBride v. Sheppard, 624 So.2d 1069, 1070-71 (Ala. 1993). " [W]e review a ruling on a question of law de novo." Parker Bldg. Servs. Co. v. Lightsey, 925 So.2d 927, 930 (Ala. 2005).

III. Discussion

A. Liability

Dees claims that her employment was terminated in retaliation for her filing a worker's compensation claim. Alabama is an at-will-employment state. Thus, an employment contract of indefinite duration " may be terminated by either

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party with or without cause or justification." Hoffman-La Roche, Inc. v. Campbell, 512 So.2d 725, 728 (Ala. 1987). However, the legislature has created the following exception: " No employee shall be terminated by an employer solely because the employee has instituted or maintained any action against the employer to recover workers' compensation benefits ...." § 25-5-11.1, Ala. Code 1975 (emphasis added). A violation of this section is answerable in damages according to general tort principles. Caraway v. Franklin Ferguson Mfg. Co., 507 So.2d 925, 926 (Ala. 1987).

Guyoungtech argues that Dees's employment was terminated as part of a bona fide and continuing layoff resulting from a reduction in the orders of parts by HMMA. See Yates v. United States Fid. & Guar. Ins. Co., 670 So.2d 908 (Ala. 1995) (holding that a layoff caused by a corporate downsizing unrelated to a worker's compensation claim is not actionable under § 25-5-11.1). Dees presented evidence from which the jury reasonably could infer that Guyoungtech's stated reason for the layoff was a mask to conceal an illegal firing. See Yates, 670 So.2d at 909 (stating that if the employer presents a nonretaliatory reason for the discharge, " the plaintiff must then present evidence indicating that the stated reason was not the true reason" ).

Dees argues that the proximity between her return to work on April 5 with hour and weight-lifting restrictions and her discharge the next day permits an inference that she was fired because of her injury and resulting worker's compensation claim. Although " mere closeness in time typically is not sufficient evidence of a retaliatory discharge," Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consol. v. Hollander, 885 So.2d 125, 131 (Ala. 2003), Dees also points to evidence indicating that the Guyoungtech executive who initiated her layoff most likely knew of her injury, even though he denied such knowledge. Further, the plant manager, who also served as safety director for the plant, denied knowing that Dees had been injured when he laid her off. The jury was entitled to find this testimony implausible. " It is settled law that the credibility of the witnesses is the province of the jury." Floyd v. Broughton, 664 So.2d 897, 900 (Ala. 1995). Dees also presented evidence indicating that Guyoungtech, contrary to Alabama law, had ceased reporting nondisabling injuries to its workers' compensation insurer in an effort to reduce its premium costs. Guyoungtech, on the other hand, demonstrated that other workers, including those in Dees's department, had continued their employment at Guyoungtech despite having filed worker's compensation claims. Because we must view disputed evidence in a light most favorable to the jury verdict, Daugherty, 840 So.2d at 156, we are not in a position to substitute our judgment for that of the jury when evidence existed from which it could reasonably find that Guyoungtech discharged Dees in violation of § 25-5-11.1.

B. Compensatory Damages

The jury awarded Dees $1 million in compensatory damages, which the trial court remitted to $300,000. A plaintiff has the burden of proving her damages. " The rule has long been established that the party claiming damages has the burden of establishing the existence of and amount of those damages by competent evidence." Johnson v. Harrison, 404 So.2d 337, 340 (Ala. 1981). Dees sought compensation for future lost wages[1] and mental anguish.

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