This post was authored by Stefanie K. Vaudreuil.
In this fifth annual installment of a look at some unbelievable, strange and wacky employment litigation, there remains no shortage of cases that will make you believe your human resources issues aren’t so bad after all.
The Thing That Happened on the Way to Jurassic Park
Before getting into the specifics of this unbelievable case, a science review is in order. About 100 million years ago, pterosaurs (winged lizards) dominated the skies. That reign lasted for about 35 million years. So, that means there has not been a living pterodactyl in 65 million years—or has there? Nancy Barnette sued Federal Express Corporation for gender discrimination after she was fired from her position as a driver following two preventable accidents. Barnette claimed that while on her assigned route an “oversized avian struck the passenger window.” Barnette described this winged creature as a “pterodactyl.” She did not immediately report the pterodactyl encounter to her employer. Meanwhile, Barnette continued along her delivery route despite the “pterodactyl” strike. Then, according to Barnette, about an hour later the window shattered into the vehicle. Apparently, that “pterodactyl” was actually the automatic gate of a housing division. The police department received a report of a FedEx driver smashing into the gate entrance. The damage to the FedEx truck was consistent with the report to the police. Before Barnette was approached by law enforcement, she informed a dispatcher at FedEx that her truck had been hit by a “pterodactyl.” After being confronted with what really happened and informed that she would be terminated, Barnette claimed she was being discriminated against because of her gender. Her theory was that male employees were not fired for accidents. What she failed to acknowledge was that the male employees did not claim that an extinct, flying dinosaur caused the damage to the vehicle. Her lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful. As an aside, there were 161 “pterodactyl” sightings reported in the United States in 2017 with the most sightings being in Utah and Oklahoma. Too bad for Barnette she lived in Florida.
He Wasn’t On the Way to White Castle When He Stopped to Feed the Grizzlies
When an employee smokes marijuana before work and his job is to feed grizzly bears, you would think the employer should not be liable when the grizzly bear attacks the stoned employee. Well, that was not the outcome in a workers’ compensation case from Montana. The employer owned a grizzly bear park where visitors could drive through to observe grizzly and black bears. The employee (who was deemed to have been an employee and not a volunteer by the Uninsured Employers’ Fund) admitted that he smoked marijuana before he went to work the morning of the grizzly bear attack. While feeding the grizzlies, like he had done on countless occasions before, he was attacked and injured. The Montana Supreme Court agreed with the decision that the employee was entitled to compensation for his injuries: “I cannot conclude based on the evidence before me that the major contributing cause of the grizzly bear attack was anything other than the grizzly. It is not as if this attack occurred when [the employee] inexplicably wandered into the grizzly pen while searching for the nearest White Castle.” The employee was not quite let off the hook for his poor judgment: His “use of marijuana to kick off a day of working around grizzly bears was ill-advised to say the least and mind-bogglingly stupid to say the most.” Just as it was stupid to feed grizzly bears after smoking marijuana, employees who have safety sensitive jobs are rightfully told that being under the influence of marijuana at work is misconduct and could be cause for discipline.
If Waterboarding Doesn’t Improve Employee Performance, Nothing Will
In this lawsuit filed by a former employee of a one-on-one education call center, the plaintiff alleged he was injured in the course of his employment by his supervisor’s unorthodox motivational methods. According to the plaintiff, his supervisor would draw mustaches with permanent marker on employees’ faces and take away their chairs if they failed to meet performance goals. This same supervisor was also known to walk around the office slamming a wooden paddle on desks and tabletops in an apparent effort to “motivate” employees. The last straw for the plaintiff occurred when he “volunteered” for a new motivational exercise. The plaintiff claimed that his participation was based upon his supervisor’s challenging the team’s loyalty and determination. What the plaintiff did not realize is that he was agreeing to participate in an exercise of waterboarding. The plaintiff was held down by other team members while the supervisor poured water over his mouth and nose so he could not breathe. The plaintiff complained to human resources, which he said did nothing about the situation, so he quit. Perhaps other methods besides Guantanamo Bay-like exercises are better suited for the workplace.
Do Speedos Make You Swim Faster?
In a case brought against the New York State Office of Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation, a seasonal lifeguard claimed he was discriminated against because of his age and gender when he was denied requalification as a lifeguard in 2007 and 2008. According to the former lifeguard, he refused to wear a speedo-type swimsuit and instead wore a more modest swimsuit that resembled bicycle shorts. He alleged the refusal to qualify him based on the type of swimsuit he wore was discrimination based on his age, 57, and gender, male. This case raises interesting questions about dress codes for applicants. Although the plaintiff had previously worked as a lifeguard, it was seasonal employment that required him to re-apply each summer. How far can an employer go with respect to what an applicant may wear? Maybe he should have been allowed to wear his swimsuit of choice during the application process but required to wear the employer’s version if he were employed. Something to think about.