Friday, July 4, 2008

46.6 million reasons to think about settlement

In the largest verdict Ohio history, and what might be the largest single-plaintiff employment verdict ever, a Cuyahoga County jury has awarded $46.6 million to Ronald Luri against garbage hauler Republic Services. reports that Luri was fired after he refused to fire three employees in their 60s. The jurors reported that they were outraged by Republic's conduct after it fired Luri: "The jurors said the key piece of evidence was an email penned by Luri's boss, Jim Bowen, the Ohio area president. Attorneys Shannon Polk and Richard Haber presented a computer expert who found that Bowen had post-dated the memo and added two paragraphs critical of Luri's job performance two weeks after Luri filed the lawsuit."

There are many lessons to be learned from this story, but none more important than this - companies need to be aware of the risks that are inherent any time they step into the courtroom in an employment case. In Ohio, only 6 out of the 8 jurors must agree on the verdict. Of the 8 total jurors, it is a sure bet that at least 6 will more naturally identify with the employee than the employer, which means that the company is usually playing from behind.

Secondly, as far as employers are concerned, an employee's performance history must be frozen in time as of that employee's termination date. Nothing will anger a jury more than a company that looks like it is trying to cover its actions, either by destroying damaging documents or creating helpful ones. The shenanigans the jury found to have taken place after Mr. Luri was fired was a significant factor in the verdict, and if his personnel file was frozen on his termination date, I predict that the verdict would have looked much different.

Unsurprisingly, it is reported that Republic will likely appeal the verdict. Regardless of how much of the $46 million holds up, employers should use this information as a wake up call. Litigation is dangerous. Juries are unpredictable. Some cases cannot be resolved and need to be tried, but sometimes it's better to live to fight another day.