CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court of Appeals has affirmed a $450,000 punitive damages award in a Wood County employment discrimination case.
Laura Cain worked for REM Community Options, LLC for more than 10 years ending Dec. 29, 2008. On Dec. 10, 2007, she had been involved in an automobile accident while on the job.
Due to injuries received in the accident, Cain filed a workers’ compensation claim, but she continued working until the physical limitations from her injuries prevented her from performing her job, forcing her to go on medical leave on June 30, 2008.
On Dec. 23, 2008, REM mailed Cain a certified letter, upon its stated belief that she had been released to return to work, requiring her to respond before Dec. 29, 2008, or she would be considered to have “voluntarily resigned.” Cain received the letter on Jan. 6 and called the company to let them know it was not her intention to resign.
After being unable to get her job back, she filed an action alleging both workers’ compensation discrimination and handicap discrimination in the Circuit Court of Wood County.
The Wood County jury returned a verdict in favor of Cain in the amounts of $75,000 in lost wages, $100,000 for emotional distress, and $450,000 for punitive damages. Defendant REM then challenged the punitive award at the circuit court level.
Wood Circuit Judge J.D. Beane listed several findings that the jury could have reasonably determined would have justified punitive damages. Among these were:
-REM required Cain to continue work after she presented a doctor’s slip stating that her physical condition precluded her from working;
-REM declined to reduce Cain’s billable hour requirement;
-REM resisted Cain’s request to be paid accrued sick leave and she had to have several discussions with management before it was paid to her;
-The company admitted that during Cain’s employment there was “not one shred of documentation of any type of disciplinary action of any kind in Laura Cain’s personnel file…”;
-REM denied that Cain was terminated, maintaining she “didn’t return from leave” and “didn’t bother coming back to work”; and
-The testimony from REM employees was “contradictory, and at times the witnesses were evasive and combative.”;
Beane determined that findings such as these could have led the jury to conclude that REM “was motivated by malice and indifference to the Plaintiff’s rights and without regard to any basic notion of fairness.”
Additionally, the Judge noted that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages ($450,000 to $176,000) was 2.5 to 1 “which is well within the acceptable range prescribed by the West Virginia Supreme court of Appeals.”
The Supreme Court affirmed Judge Beane, stating, “In its “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law with Respect to Punitive Damages” order… the circuit court found that plaintiff did present sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages. Upon a de novo review of the record on appeal, the parties’ arguments, and the circuit court’s well-reasoned order, we agree with the circuit court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law.”
REM had argued that they were prejudiced by “statements and argument of plaintiff’s counsel.” To this argument the Court said “we find that even if counsel had not made the complained-of statements and argument, there was still more than sufficient evidence to warrant the imposition of punitive damages.”