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On May 22, 2011, an F5 tornado struck the city of Joplin, Missouri, resulting in 159 deaths and over $2 billion in damage. The spring of 2011 was one of the worst tornado seasons on record with over 500 deaths during the months of April and May. Less than 72 hours after the tragic disaster in Joplin, the National Weather Service issued a “Particularly Dangerous Situation” (PDS) Tornado Watch encompassing large portions of southern Illinois.

PDS Tornado Watches are relatively rare events meant to highlight an unusually high threat level of severe tornado activity of the type most likely to result in injury, death and significant property damage. It was against this backdrop that MMR client Doug Wallin, an experienced truck driver, objected to driving a truck through the heart of the PDS Tornado Watch area. Immediately upon voicing his concerns to his employer, Mr. Wallin’s employment was terminated.

MMR’s Litigation Team, consisting of Mark Schuver, Laura Schrick and Natalie Lorenz, brought suit on behalf of Mr. Wallin under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) and state law. The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, alleged that Mr. Wallin’s termination for refusing to drive a commercial motor vehicle based on concerns for his own safety and the safety of the public was unlawful. The STAA was enacted by Congress to ensure increased compliance in the trucking industry with commercial motor vehicle safety regulations. In order to achieve this purpose, the STAA provides protections for employees by making it unlawful for their employers to discharge, discipline or discriminate against them for refusing to operate a commercial motor vehicle due to safety concerns.

In one of the few STAA cases ever brought to trial in Illinois, MMR’s Litigation Team presented extensive evidence establishing that a reasonable person, under the circumstances confronting Mr. Wallin at the time he refused to drive his truck, would have concluded that there was a bona fide danger of accident or injury. MMR’s Litigation Team retained Dr. Timothy Eichler, an Assistant Professor of Meteorology at St. Louis University, who presented expert testimony in support of Mr. Wallin’s claim. The employer, Jung Transport, LLC, vigorously fought the lawsuit, presenting testimony from their own expert, a forensic meteorologist with AccuWeather in Wichita, Kansas.

The Court’s decision, which was issued on August 25, 2014, found that Jung Transport’s termination of Mr. Wallin’s employment violated the STAA, as well as clear public policy under Illinois common law. A copy of the Court’s decision can be found here.

A prevailing employee under the STAA is entitled to damages including: (1) back pay with interest; (2) front pay; (3) reinstatement of employment; (4) damages for mental anguish and emotional distress; (5) attorney’s fees and costs; (6) expert witness fees; and (7) punitive damages up to $250,000.

The Court’s decision in this landmark case applies to all employees in the trucking industry, and affords those employees with protection against retaliation for expressing a wide range of concerns relating to safety and compliance with safety regulations. This case sends a clear signal to the trucking industry that employees cannot be forced to operate unsafe equipment or to drive vehicles in unsafe conditions.

If you are employed in the trucking industry and believe that your employer has discharged, disciplined or discriminated against you based on concerns for safety, you should contact the Litigation Team at Mathis, Marifian & Richter, Ltd., for assistance.