Texas Supreme Court rules that Punitive Damages Available to Truck Driver who refused to drive a company truck that was not in compliance with all Department of Transportation regulations. Texas has only one public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. That policy is known as the Sabine Pilot exception states that an employer cannot be terminated for refusing to do an illegible act. In this case a truck driver was terminated when he refused to drive an unsafe truck that was not in compliance with all Department of Transportation regulations. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the truck driver could recover punitive damages from his employer. The Supreme Court of Texas ruled that a wrongfully terminated plaintiff (who refused to do an illegal act) may recover punitive damages where there is evidence that the employer: 1) circulates false or malicious rumors about the employee before or after the discharge; 2) actively interferes with the employee’s ability to find other employment; 3) harasses the employee in connection with a wrongful firing; or 4) knows the retaliatory firing is unlawful and does it anyway. The Court went on to state that punitive damages are not recoverable if the employer simply directs the employee do the illegal act or if they merely note employee discipline in internal personnel records.
This case in interesting because the Plaintiff, being a truck driver could have also sued under the STAA act which also protects truck drivers who refuse to drive unsafe trucks. The STAA act is a little more liberal than the the Sabine Pilot exception to the at-will doctrine but, unlike the STAA act there is no cap ($250,000.00 for STAA). However under the STAA act the employee is entitled to recover his or her attorneys’ fees. ( see https://rogerdavie.com/news/a-truck-driver-who-repo…
This case also brings up the issue of defamation in the work place (also know as libel or slander law). This can be a tricky issue in the employment context; however in some circumstances an employer may be sued if it makes false statements about an employee. There are some privileges, but if an employer gives a bad reference that are false the employee may have a claim for defamation (libel or slander — libel being written false statement and slander being an oral statement).
It is important to hire a board certified employment lawyer in Texas if you are faced with such a claim — the Sabine Pilot exception and defamation claims are available to all employees no matter what industry they work in and the STAA act is available to truck drivers. In El Paso, Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico hiring an employment lawyer will help you determine what your rights are if you have been fired or terminated because you refused to do an illegal act. New Mexico has different (an sometime better) laws than Texas; but both states have laws that protect fired and injured workers from wrongful termination; whistle blowing; and defamation (libel slander).