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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Indiana Supreme Court permits expert testimony on "workplace bullying"

In what could be considered the first major judicial opinion on workplace bullying, the Indiana Supreme Court, in Raess v. Doescher, permits an expert witness to opine on "workplace bullying."

Joseph Doescher, a hospital operating room perfusionist (the person who operates the heart/lung machine during open heart surgeries), sued Dr. Daniel Raess, a cardiovascular surgeon, for an alleged assault in the operating room. The testimony at trial was that Dr. Raess was angry at Doescher about reports to the hospital administration over the doctor's treatment of other perfusionists. Dr. Raess aggressively and rapidly came at Doescher "with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him." Doescher backed up against a wall to defend himself, believing that Dr. Raess "was going to smack the s**t out of" him. Dr. Raess then suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed out of room yelling to Doescher, "you're finished, you're history." For this conduct, a jury awarded Doescher $325,000.

Among the testimony that the jury heard what that of Doescher's expert witness, Dr. Gary Namie, one of the co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute. The Workplace Bullying Institute is the organization that is on the forefront of trying to get anti-bullying legislation passed. Dr. Namie testified as to the nature of Dr. Raess's behavior:

In my opinion it's an episode of workplace bullying.... I concluded that based on what I heard and what I read that [the defendant] is a workplace abuser, a person who subjected [the plaintiff] to an abusive work environment. It was a horrific day, it was [a] particularly aggregous [sic], outrageous ... episode.

The Indiana Supreme Court found no error in the trial court's ruling that allowed Dr. Namie's "expert" testimony. According to the court, the term "workplace bullying" can be used because the phrase is "like other general terms used to characterize a person's behavior...." It also found that the trial court did not err in refusing to instruct the jury that workplace bullying, in and of itself, is not illegal.

It should be frightening to any business owner that a court has legitimized Dr. Namie's theory of workplace bullying as some great societal wrong that needs to be fixed. My fear is that this opinion will embolden the workplace bullying movement, a movement that readers of this blog know I feel should die a quick death.

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