Whistle-blower flagging safety violation? Don’t shoot the messenger by retaliating

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in Firing,Human Resources

Generally, Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state where employers can fire employees for any nondiscriminatory reason.

But Pennsylvania also allows lawsuits for wrongful discharge based on public-policy concerns. Those public policies include the right not to be fired for reporting company safety violations that could harm the public.

Recent case: Ronald Oliveri worked as a manager for a commercial motor carrier and was responsible for testing drivers for drugs.

He complained to the company hotline that the facility’s operations manager allowed employees who tested positive for illegal drugs, such as cocaine, to continue driving. U.S. Department of Transportation regulations say drivers who test positive must be pulled from service and can return only after treatment.

Oliveri was fired the day after he reported his concerns. He sued, alleging wrongful discharge.

His former employer argued that Pennsylvania’s public-policy exception to the at-will rule didn’t cover the sort of complaint Oliveri made.

The court disagreed. It said that, because members of the public could be harmed by drivers under the influence of illegal drugs, firing Oliveri for reporting the problem violated public policy.

It didn’t matter that Oliveri was reporting a violation of federal law. What mattered was that people could be harmed by allowing impaired drivers on the roads. (Oliveri v. North Star Food Service, No. 3:09-CV-921, MD PA, 2010)

Final note: Whistle-blowing lawsuits are on the rise. Take internal complaints seriously. Don’t shoot the messenger.

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