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COA upholds jury verdict in fired worker’s complaint

February 16, 2016

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a ruling from Elkhart Superior Court that a man was entitled to $412,680 in compensatory and punitive damages after his employer fired him without cause after he filed a workers’ compensation claim.

George Shoun was an employee at Best Formed Plastics LLC and operated a CNC machine, as well as a thermoforming machine. On March 9, 2012, Shoun fell from the thermoforming machine and dislocated his shoulder while attempting to secure an airline that had come loose.

He returned to work one week later with medical restrictions and was doing other work. He had surgery to repair his shoulder and returned to work with the same medical restrictions, operating a CNC machine. On Sept. 17, 2012, his boss approached him and told him he would have no work for him the rest of the week or next due to a decrease in sales, but no one else was released.

Shoun filed a complaint and the Elkhart court found in his favor.

BFP claimed there was clear evidence that Shoun was, and for the foreseeable future would be, physically unable to perform the functions of his pre-injury work and therefore his retaliatory discharge claim is barred as a matter of law. The court disagreed.

BFP claimed it was entitled to judgment on the evidence, and Shoun’s claim is contrary to law.  However, the court said otherwise, following the three-step approach outlined in Frampton v Central Indiana Gas Co., 260 Ind. 249, 251-53, 297 N.E.2d 425, 427-28 (1973).

An employee must prove cause between the firing and a filing of the claim. Second, the employer must give a nondiscriminatory reason for the discharge. Third, if the reason is sound, the employee must prove the reason was pretext.

The court found a claim is not short-circuited because the employer has articulated a nonretaliatory reason for discharge, as urged by BFP. BFP does not dispute that sufficient evidence supports the jury’s determination that the company terminated his employment solely in retaliation for filing the workers’ comp claim, so the court did not err.

The court also found the trial court did not err in refusing BFP’s tendered jury instructions because that is left to the discretion of the trial court. Those instructions were not supported by evidence nor correct statements of Indiana law.

The court also found the jury’s compensatory damages award on Shoun’s claim was not excessive. Nearly 29  months had elapsed since Shoun had been terminated, and his monthly salary and benefits was $3,398.91. Therefore, his award of $71,809.36 was not excessive.

The additional $265,870.64 was not excessive as well, the court said, because he expected to work at BFP until he was 67. Assuming monthly wages of $3398.91, Shoun’s future loss of income and benefits would range between $234,524 and $275,311.

Finally, the court found BFP waived the court’s review of its assertion the trial court erred in entering judgment on the jury’s verdict.  The trial court entered $25,000 in punitive damages but no compensatory damages, but because BFP did not object to this at the trial, it waived its ability to object in appeal.

The case is Best Formed Plastics, LLC, and Jane Stewart v. George Shoun, 20A03-1506-PL-651.
 

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