In a decision issued on February 23, 2011, the United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has ordered a Memphis-based towing company to reinstate a commercial driver, William Beecher. OSHA found that the employer unlawfully fired Beecher because he refused to drive a transport recovery vehicle that did not comply with DOT regulations. In Beecher v. United Auto Recovery and Memphis Auto Auction, OSHA also ordered Beecher's former employer to pay him back pay in excess of $38,000, emotional distress damages of $20,000, punitive damages of $40,000 and more than $10,000 in attorney fees.
On February 5, 2009, Beecher refused to drive a tow truck because the vehicle had a severe coolant leak which he had previously noted on numerous daily vehicle inspection reports submitted to the employer. An outside vendor for the employer had noted on a work order that the vehicle was "not driveable." It appeared to Beecher that the truck also had a blown head gasket. OSHA found that if Beecher had driven the truck, he would have violated 49 C.F.R. § 396.7(a) which operations of a vehicle "in such a condition as to likely cause an accident or a breakdown of the vehicle."
Although the employer claimed it offered Beecher an alternative vehicle to drive, a 4900 four-car hauler, Beecher did not have a license allow him to drive that larger vehicle. OSHA found that Beecher's refusal to drive the larger vehicle was legally protected because he would have otherwise violated 49 C.F.R. § 383.23(a).
OSHA found that an award of damages for emotional distress was appropriate because Beecher's discharge caused him to fall into "a deep depression" and that he and his family "have suffered mental anguish due to this financial stress." OSHA also held that punitive damages were warranted because of United Auto Delivery and Recovery and Memphis Auto Auctions' "reckless disregard for the law and complete indifference to [Beecher's] rights."
Beecher brought his claim under the employee protection provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, 49 U.S.C. § 31105, which prohibits retaliation against commercial drivers because they have filed safety-related complaints or because they have refused to drive in violation of a commercial vehicle safety regulations.
Beecher was represented by Paul O. Taylor of Truckers Justice Center, a law firm handling employment-related claims for commercial drivers based in Burnsville, MN. Mr. Taylor may be reached at 651-454-5800 or visit www.truckersjusticecenter.com