Whistleblower’s Claim of Termination for Reporting Deficient Preventative Maintenance Dismissed

In a per curiam decision, a New Jersey appeals court affirmed a decision dismissing a worker’s whistleblower claim against his former employer, a trucking company.  The worker alleged that he was wrongfully terminated from his job as a mechanic after reporting violations of the company’s preventative maintenance program.  The appellate court’s decision turned on whether the worker “objectively, reasonably believed [the Company’s] conduct threatened public safety.”

At the trial court level, the plaintiff’s coworker testified that he and the plaintiff first notified the company of maintenance program violations via an anonymous email in April 2011. The coworker also testified that the email triggered an internal investigation.  The plaintiff’s coworker gave a detailed description of the maintenance program and of specifically alleged violations.  In contrast, however, the plaintiff merely testified that he believed that the maintenance program violations “threatened people’s safety,” he could not present any evidence that he was trained on the program, and could not provide testimony about the specifics of the program.  A jury found in plaintiff’s favor for $90,000 but the trial court judge granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict, finding “no evidence for the jury . . . [to] conclude that [plaintiff], himself, held a reasonably objective – a reasonable belief that the practice did, in fact, threaten public safety.”

The appellate court agreed.  Analyzing the case under the “clear mandate of public policy” provision of the New Jersey whistleblower statute (CEPA, N.J.S.A. 34:19), which bars retaliatory actions against employees if the employee refuses to participate in an activity that “is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health. . . .” N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c)(3), the appellate court found that the the plaintiff failed to explain how the maintenance program violations would cause a safety hazard or otherwise threaten public safety.  The court commented that the worker merely “highlighted bad internal management at the [New Jersey] facility, rather than a threat to public safety.”

The case was number A-3742-14T3 in the New Jersey Appellate Division.

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