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Injured worker may add punitive damages to claim

An injured worker may add a claim for punitive damages against his former employer, whom he contends fired him for making a workers compensation claim.

In Hathaway v. Idaho Pacific Corp., a judge with the U.S. District Court in Pocatello, Idaho, on Thursday granted the former employee’s motion to amend his complaint alleging retaliation and discrimination to seek additional damages.

Ross Hathaway worked for Idaho Pacific Corp. in Rigby, Idaho, which manufactures potato flakes and flours. On Feb. 19, 2013, Mr. Hathaway claimed he slipped on potato granules, which caused him to fall and injure his left thumb, hand and shoulder. He reported the incident to the plant safety manager, who prepared a handwritten report of the incident, which he signed.

A month later, he visited the company’s workers compensation provider because of pain he said he was experiencing in his shoulders. He was diagnosed with a shoulder strain stemming from the incident. However, the company’s HR director said she believed his pain was caused by hyperglycemia and told the physician that it was not workers compensation-related.

The doctor sent a letter to the company, reporting that he believed the injury was workers comp related, and the HR director prepared a report for the company’s insurer, but did not include medical documentation and stated in an email to the insurer that she did not believe his shoulder issue was related to his injury.

In mid-April 2013, Mr. Hathaway asked to see a copy of his injury report, which had since been typed, and reportedly omitted any reference to his shoulder, mentioning only that he had injured his thumb. When he asked for the handwritten report, he was directed to another supervisor. He was fired the following day on the basis that he had allegedly told another employee that he planned to intentionally harm himself at work.

He filed a complaint against the company asserting charges of disability discrimination and retaliation under the Idaho Human Rights Act, and later sought to amend it to add a claim for punitive damages.

U.S. District Judge David Nye granted Mr. Hathaway’s motion to add a claim for punitive damages. The judge noted that Mr. Hathaway presented evidence that the company maintained handwritten records of incidents and that the typed version was neither verified nor signed by Mr. Hathaway. As a result, the judge held that Mr. Hathaway presented evidence that the company may have intentionally withheld or destroyed his handwritten incident report, which he said could support a claim for punitive damages.

The judge also held that the circumstances surrounding Mr. Hathaway’s termination could support a claim for punitive damages, noting the proximity of his firing with his questioning of the handwritten report could show that the company “wanted to silence him” and could be construed by a jury to show evidence of “punitive behavior.”

Therefore, the judge said that after weighing the evidence, he believed Mr. Hathaway established a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.

Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.