Texas is an employment at-will employment state and has been that way since at least 1888. In that year, the Texas Supreme Court held that, absent a contractual agreement to the contrary, an employee employed for an indefinite term could be terminated at will without cause. That changed in the 1985 Sabine Pilot case where the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a wrongful termination lawsuit from the Beaumont Court of Appeals to create an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, allowing an employee to bring a tort action for wrongful termination when the employee is fired because the employee refuses to commit an illegal act requested by his or her employer. Justification for the exception was rooted in public policy that promotes preventing workers from being forced by employers to decide between their jobs and facing criminal liabilities and prosecution.
Decided in 2012 by the Texas Supreme Court, the case Safeshred, Inc. v. Martinez, 365 S.W.3d 655 (Tex.2012) decided the issue of whether a Sabine Pilot plaintiff could recover both tort and exemplary (punitive) damages as a result of a wrongful termination, finding that, yes, there are circumstances under which a wrongful termination plaintiff may have an actionable claim for punitive damages. Consequently, punitive damages can be an element of damages in a Sabine Pilot lawsuit.
In that wrongful termination lawsuit, Martinez worked for Safeshred, a trucking company, in October of 2007, hauling loads of cargo between Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Austin. Prior to each haul, Safeshred required Martinez to perform a pre-trip inspection of the truck to confirm its compliance with relevant safety regulations. According to the Texas Supreme Court opinion, Martinez repeatedly discovered safety violations in the vehicle he was asked to drive throughout the beginning of October, but was consistently ordered to drive the truck anyway. In an October 8th trip, Martinez was pulled over by a Department of Public Safety trooper for numerous violations of state and federal regulations, including, for example, improperly secured cargo, due in part to substantial cuts in straps used to secure the load to the truck bed. The trooper told Martinez not to drive the truck again until the defects had been fixed.
At trial in Austin, Texas, Martinez testified that he showed the citation and described the problems to Safeshred management. However, Martinez was asked by Safeshred to drive the truck again on October 9th and he refused to do so. After a week of administrative duties during which time Safeshred supposedly sought to bring the truck in compliance with state and federal regulations, Safeshred again asked Martinez to drive the truck. However, Martinez’s concerns about the load’s legality persisted, because the cut straps remained, the load was unsafely stacked higher than the top of the truck’s cab, and there was no material between the two main rows of the steel shelving. Martinez then drove the truck as ordered. When asked to drive the truck again after that, Martinez he did so but turned around and returned when he felt the cargo shifting and feared for his safety. Upon his return, Martinez urged his concerns about load legality up the chain of command but was told to drive or go home. He went home and was fired.
Martinez retained an attorney in Austin and sued Safeshred for wrongful termination pursuant to Sabine Pilot Service, Inc. v. Hauck, 687 S.W.2d 733 (Tex.1985). A jury trial took place and the jury awarded Martinez $7,569.18 in lost wages, $10,000 in mental anguish damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to comply with a statutory tort reform damage cap and Safeshred attorneys appealed to the Austin Court of Appeals which dispensed with the mental anguish damages but otherwise left the verdict and judgment undisturbed. The lawsuit proceeded on to the Texas Supreme Court where the Court said a Sabine Pilot plaintiff could, under certain circumstances, obtain punitive damages but this was not one of those cases. Consequently, the Texas Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Austin Court of Appeals and otherwise affirmed that decision.
Whistleblowing can be a different type of action because reporting or blowing the whistle on the occurrence of unlawful conduct may not always have the same facts and circumstances as the act of refusing to commit a crime requested by the employer. Generally, a Sabine Pilot plaintiff alleges wrongful discharge for refusing to commit a crime while a whistleblower alleges wrongful discharge for reporting an illegal act. A whistleblower receives anti-retaliation protections under the law only where employed by an employer subject to a whistleblower statute. Further, the process for bringing a Sabine Pilot claim can be different than bringing a whistleblower claim. One should consult an attorney about these distinctions since distinctions between whistleblowing and refusing to commit a crime under Sabine Pilot can be fact specific and significant.
For example, in a trucking industry whistleblower claim a truck driver may have to follow an administrative process and the claims may be based on federal law. In this regard, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act contains whistleblower provisions that, depending on the facts and circumstances, may provide whistleblower protections to truck drivers.
The United States Department of Labor reported in a November 19, 2013 press release that two terminated truck drivers filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging that their employer discriminated against them in retaliation for activities protected by the Surface Transportation Assistance Act’s (STAA) whistleblower provisions. According to the press release, the drivers were dismissed after one was stopped by police and cited for hauling an excess load without a commercial driver’s license, operating an overweight trailer and driving without a log book. The cited driver told another driver and they refused to continue driving until the issues were resolved. As a result, both were fired. Under the terms of the consent judgment obtained in that case, the two truck drivers were paid $302,000 to resolve the lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Department of Labor.
To get to that result, the two truck drivers filed complaints with OSHA alleging that the employer discriminated against them in retaliation for activities protected under the STAA. Then the administrative law judge awarded reinstatement and back wages. Afterward, the judge’s decision was automatically reviewed when it was referred to the Administrative Review Board which issues final decisions for the secretary of labor in cases arising under a wide range of worker protection laws. Upon review, the Administrative Review Board upheld the judge’s decision.
An Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health quoted in the press release commented that the truck drivers were fired for trying to protect themselves and the driving public, that no truck driver should be forced to drive in those employment conditions and that OSHA will continue to defend truck drivers against unscrupulous employers who unlawfully retaliate against drivers who assert their right to drive safely.
Where the STAA whistleblower lawsuit followed an administrative path to resolution, the Sabine Pilot truck driver wrongful termination lawsuit went through the state district court system.
Whether wrongful termination occurs in Cuero, Houston, Karnes City or elsewhere in Texas, trucking company employees terminated from their employment because of their refusal to commit an illegal act or crime may have a potential wrongful termination case and may consult an attorney to determine if the particular facts and circumstances of the employment termination support pursuit of a wrongful termination lawsuit.