The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled on a case involving the wrongful termination of an employee because the employee refused to perform an illegal act. Safeshred, Inc. v. Martinez, No. 10-0426 (Tex. Apr. 20, 2012), available at http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/historical/2012/apr/100426.pdf.
The employee refused to drive a truck because the truck did not comply with safety regulations. The employer fired him for this refusal. The employee then sued for wrongful termination and won. The jury awarded him punitive damages.
A narrow exception to the at-will employment doctrine allows an employee to sue an employer if the employee was fired for the sole reason that the employee refused to perform an illegal act. The Court first held that these wrongful termination claims are tort claims, not contract claims. As such, punitive damages would be appropriate if the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of the employer’s malice. The Court provided several examples of what malice could be in a wrongful termination matter. It then concluded that the plaintiff did not present legally sufficient evidence for the jury to believe that the employer acted with malice in firing him, and it reversed the punitive damages award.
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