A letter from the Clerk of the Court of Okmulgee County arrived saying I was being summoned for jury duty on March 3rd. Ended up on a civil case where a young man was terminated because he hired an attorney to handle his worker’s compensation claim when his employer violated state law and didn’t pay him 70% of his regular salary while he was disabled. All this transpired in 2003 and he just got his day in court. He was asking for back wages from the time he was terminated in September of 2003 until he found employment in late November although it was for less money that he had been making. And he was only making $8/hour at the job he was fired from!
Oklahoma is a right to work state. What that means is that you can be fired at any time for no reason and you have no recourse. That is only a tiny step above servitude. So, most employer’s and the managers that work for them here generally treat subordinates like Charlie Chaplin in Hard Times. There is one caveat to the law which prohibits terminating an employee who was injured on the job and draws worker’s compensation. What was so amazing about the case was that one of the interrogatories clearly showed that the company lied about the facts surrounding the case, specifically claiming the plaintiff had abandoned his job 6 months prior to his actual firing and while he was under medical care while on worker’s compensation. Further, they claimed that upon his return to work after medical release that he quit because he refused to work in a particular job; yet the company didn’t protest his filing for and receipt of unemployment benefits. Clearly violations of the termination law.
As unbelievable as it may sound I ended up being selected as the foreman and was able to persuade the two holdouts of the jury that the young man had a viable claim and pointed out, with the assistance of several other jurors who agreed with my view, the discrepancies in the defense’s case. Then we set about computing the damages. It was really funny to see my fellow jurors bewilderment on how to approach this issue. So I said that we had to set some parameters. I suggested that we could use his salary as reported to the State Unemployment Office as a base which was $18,839. I then divided the amount by 12 months ($1,533.17 or $1,533) and multiplied that by the last three months of 2003 and the first three months of 2009 ($9,198) and then added that amount to his cumulative salary for 2004 through 2008, a period of 5 years ($94,195) for a total of $103,393. I then deducted $387.00 for a two week job he held until he found a full time job. THEN, I calculated 70% of that amount, or $72,104.00 because when you receive unemployment in Oklahoma you get 70% of your salary. That was acceptable to the rest of the Jury and we awarded that amount as actual damages. We then added $18,839 as punitive damages and he received $90,943.00 to send a message to employers in Oklahoma as well as compensate the plaintiff for his diligence in pursuing his wrongful termination.
I gotta tell you, I felt really good about the outcome of the trial. It really grates me how employees are treated in Oklahoma. Maybe, just maybe this trial went a little way in correcting what I see as a gross injustice. It wasn’t changing the course of mighty rivers or bending steel in my bare hands, but, for a few minutes, I certainly felt like a masked marvel.
What was surreal about the trial was that the lawyer for the defendant looked exactly like the Ventriloquist from the original animated Bruce Timm Batman cartoon series. I swear to god! This man could have been the model for creating the character. It was eerie. He had this large case (one of those that are used to carry samples by some sales people) that contained reams of paper, but I kept expecting him to pull out Scarface with his tommy-gun and mow us all down in the jury box!