Safety and OSHA News

Injured during team building: Was firing retaliation for workers’ comp claim?

The court deciding this case noted its ironic twist: “A company outing meant to boost morale and teamwork resulted in an injury … and this acrimonious lawsuit.” 

While at a team-building retreat, Aulick Chemical Solutions Inc. (ACS) employee Wil Jackson fell and injured his hip. Within a month of the incident, Jackson filed a workers’ comp claim.

Two weeks after he filed the claim, ACS fired Jackson. The company says the reason was poor job performance, specifically the loss of a big client in Jackson’s territory (he was a sales representative). Jackson says the timing of his firing showed it was really for filing a workers’ comp claim for the team-building injury.

ACS filed for summary judgment (i.e. to throw out Jackson’s case). A federal court recently ruled on that request.

‘Flimsy, nonsensical, defies logic’

The company gave four reasons for firing Jackson. The court found each one at least somewhat suspicious:

  • Poor job performance: While ACS was able to show some ongoing concerns about Jackson’s job performance, the company didn’t show specifically why he was fired soon after his workers’ comp claim.
  • Jackson didn’t accept a new position with ACS: Jackson had been offered a new position with ACS in engineering just five days before he filed for comp. An email exchange shows the offer had been left open and undecided because a follow-up meeting with Jackson never occurred.
  • Loss of a large customer: The court said on its face, this reason was “the most convincing of all of ACS’s justifications for firing Jackson.” But there was also evidence on the record to support Jackson’s claim that he wasn’t the reason the large customer left ACS, and the company knew it.
  • Economic hardship requiring a reduction in workforce: It’s hard to argue that when ACS filled both Jackson’s sales position and the engineering post it offered him.

The court really wasn’t impressed with ACS’s arguments. Among the phrases the court used to describe the company’s reasoning: “some of [ACS’s] proffered reasons are flimsy, even nonsensical … defies logic and common sense … makes little sense.”

“The facts of this case demonstrate arguably a close temporal proximity which alone may raise the inference that Jackson was fired due to his protected activity” (filing a workers’ comp claim), the court wrote.

It appears the case will now go to trial, unless there is a settlement beforehand.

Sometimes, timing is everything – at least when it comes to taking disciplinary measures against an employee who just filed a workers’ comp claim.

(Wil Jackson v. Aulick Chemical Solutions, Inc.U.S. Dist. Crt. ED of KY, No. 5:16-cv-452, 1/5/18)

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  1. Tom Rezner, Ph.D.,SPHR, CSM says:

    A great team building exercise. Fire a guy who gets hurt participating. The smart thing for the company to have done was see if the engineering position would fly after the accident.. A sales position where mobility is important would create ADA problems. Whatever they did the company should not force moving to the engineering position or staying in the sales position. There are potential ADA, FMLA, and reporting discrimination charges which could create a real mess. You work with the guy and get him back to work. Then if you want to fire him you work slowly building a case. This employer shot itself in the foot at every turn.

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