whistleblowerOSHA has ordered Palumbo Trucking Inc. of North Branford, Conn., and owner David Palumbo to withdraw a retaliatory lawsuit filed against two former workers of the commercial motor carrier who raised safety concerns, pay them $60,000 in damages and take other corrective actions.

A chilling effect

"Filing a baseless, retaliatory lawsuit against workers who engaged in protected activity has a profound chilling effect. It can intimidate workers into remaining silent about safety and health concerns that could have consequences for them and others on the road," said Marthe Kent, OSHA's New England regional administrator.

The order follows an OSHA investigation that found the company and Palumbo violated the whistleblower protection provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act when they filed a lawsuit against two former workers, a mechanic and a driver, who had registered complaints about a potentially unsafe truck with the North Branford Police Department and the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles in September 2012. The former workers' actions were protected activity under the STAA.

While the workers were discharged from employment for reasons not related to their protected activities, the company subsequently filed a lawsuit against the two workers in the Superior Court of Connecticut on Jan. 7, 2013, alleging that they intentionally and maliciously filed the complaint with the North Branford Police Department.

Punitive damages and neutral job references

In addition to ordering the withdrawal of the lawsuit, the order requires Palumbo to pay each worker $20,000 in punitive damages for the filing and litigating of a lawsuit that was solely intended to retaliate against activities protected by the STAA, as well as $10,000 each in compensatory damages for mental anguish, emotional distress, pain and suffering. Additionally, the company must pay reasonable attorney's fees to the complainants, provide the former workers a neutral job reference, and post a notice on its job site and provide fact sheets to its workers notifying them of their rights under the STAA.

The company or the complainants may file objections or request a hearing before the department's Office of Administrative Law Judges within 30 days of receipt of OSHA's order.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the STAA and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor. More information is available online at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/index.html.