The 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld damages for a towboat captain fired after he refused to push a load he considered unsafe.
The dispute arose over a “six-long” program that upped the load for lower-river vessels on the Mississippi from 40 barges to 48. The captain responded in writing that he considered the load unsafe. His reviews steadily fell, and he was finally demoted and fired. His employer, American River Transport Company, argued his firing was part of a business reduction and that the six-long program was entirely voluntary—that it never ordered the captain to participate.
But the courts held that repeatedly asking him to push the extra barges was basically the same as ordering him to. The captain based his case on a law protecting seamen from being fired for refusing unsafe assignments.
The decision shows the hazard of using to “punish” employees for non-performance issues.