Was one of the managers of a California Chipotle set up by her bosses and accused of theft simply because she filed a workers’ compensation claim over an injured wrist?
A jury thinks so. In fact, they’ve already awarded the fired employee nearly $8 million in damages — and that’s not the end of things. The parties have to be back in court soon in order to determine what amount of punitive damages they’ll have to pay. Punitive damages are generally only awarded when a defendant’s actions are found to be particularly reprehensible. They’re designed to deter others from doing something similar in the future.
While retaliatory discharges against employees for workers’ comp claims are illegal, employers sometimes try to find an unrelated reason to end an injured worker’s employment — even if they have to invent one. That has a chilling effect on anyone else who might consider filing for benefits after an injury in the future.
In this case, the woman’s bosses claimed that she was a thief. They allegedly had surveillance video of her stealing a little over $600. However, when she demanded to see it, her bosses claimed it was destroyed. They also told the court that they had text messages regarding the incident that were somehow deleted and notes regarding her termination that were somehow lost.
The jury didn’t buy it. When one party in a lawsuit fails to preserve important evidence, the court calls that “spoliation.” When spoliation of evidence occurs, the jury may infer that the party responsible had a knowledge of guilt or some other reason to keep the evidence from being seen. That’s likely what happened in this case.
This case illustrates the importance of documenting everything when there’s a chance of a lawsuit — and making sure that the documentation is kept safe. It’s hard to say, sometimes, exactly what can tilt the balance of the evidence in someone’s favor.
Source: Money, “A Chipotle Manager Fired for Stealing $626 Just Won $8 Million In a Wrongful Termination Suit Play Video,” AP, May 14, 2018