Wrongful discharge to refusing to drive too-heavy truck on interstate highway

This case acquaints us with a wrongful discharge claim that most of us are not familiar with. Under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, a trucking company cannot fire a truck driver for refusing to drive a truck on an interstate highway that exceeds the federal weight limit. That's what happened to the plaintiff in this case, and a jury in New Haven awarded him compensatory and punitive damages. That verdict is upheld on appeal.

The case is Kennedy v. Supreme Forest Products, a summary order issued on February 6. Plaintiff was directed to drive a truck that exceeded 80,000 pounds. The truck was carrying a load of mulch. This was in April 2014; springtime is a good time to deliver mulch. But this was too much mulch, so plaintiff objected, and was fired as a result. The jury awarded him nearly $12,000 in compensatory damages and $425,000 in punitive damages, which the trial court reduced to $250,000, the statutory cap. The company challenges liability and the size of the punitive damages award.

Management says the verdict was rooted in speculation because plaintiff never testified that he would have operated the truck on an interstate highway. But there was no speculation, the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Calabresi and Wesley) says, because plaintiff testified that he understood the federal weight limitation applied only to the "federal highway system" and he did not want to break "the overweight law." Also, "common sense and geography" supports the verdict, says the Second Circuit. Two of the judges on the panel are from Connecticut, so this was the wrong panel to suggest the jury got it wrong on this issue. Testimony demonstrated the plaintiff refused to transport two loads, originating in Southington, Connecticut and destined for Bridgeport and Hartford. The most direct route for these trips involves the interstate highway system, and "a local jury (as this one was) would not even have needed a map" to know this. I guess if you live in the area, everyone knows this. As Judge Calabresi said at oral argument, "Connecticut only has so many highways" and it is unlikely plaintiff would have driven on "dirt roads."

What about the punitive damages? The $250,000 is the cap under federal law for these claims, and the jury was able to find that defendant was motivated by greed and repeat offenses. As for liability for punitive damages, the evidence shows defendant tried to cover up what happened, telling HR that plaintiff had quit his job (and was not fired). And, the employee handbook discusses the applicable regulations, demonstrating that it knew the law, such that it "discriminated in the face of a perceived risk."

What this case tells us is that it is quite difficult to challenge a jury verdict on appeal, and that arguments that the verdict was rooted in speculation are equally difficult. Here, we inferred that defendant wanted plaintiff to drive his truck on the interstate highway, even though, I guess, no one directly testified to that fact. But we can draw inferences so long as they are not unreasonable.