Whistle-Blower Fired for Other Valid Reasons
(CN) - An Idaho hospital properly fired a whistle-blowing employee because it had other reasons to terminate him, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Van started working for Portneuf Medical Center as a mechanic in 1986 and became head of maintenance in 1997. He was in charge of maintaining the LifeFlight helicopter, which crashed in 2001.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on pilot error, not any mechanical problems. However, Van felt that the public and media blamed the crash on his department, according to the district court.
To defend his department's image, Van stated that the pilots had "accumulated too much time on duty; flown the helicopter too low; taken off with ice on the helicopter's rotor blades; and overflown the helicopter by exceeding inspection time intervals.
Van also objected to a contract proposal for a new helicopter, stating the contract contained loopholes that would allow the vendor to escape maintenance responsibilities.
Portneuf fired Van in 2005, stating that he couldn't maintain positive relationship with his co-workers.
Van sued for breach of contract and violation of Idaho's Whistleblower Act. The trial court ruled in the hospital's favor, but the Idaho Supreme Court remanded the whistle-blower termination claim.
In the second trial, the jury again ruled in the hospital's favor, finding that Van engaged in protected whistle-blowing activities but that he was not fired for that reason.
The Idaho Supreme Court agreed last week.
"The record indicates that PMC was generally responsive to Van's (safety) concerns and implemented policies to address a number of them," Justice Jim Jones wrote for the court. "However, there was also substantial evidence that Van continued to revisit the issues, even after responsive policies had been adopted, and that he would not allow matters to be put to rest."
Jones cited Van's letter that suggested the removal of a plane's battery to prevent a pilot from making a potentially unsafe flight.
The letter showed Van's "inability to let go," according to the Aug. 1 ruling.
"Van's suggestion that maintenance personnel remove and conceal the helicopter's battery when they deem a pilot unfit to fly is rather risky business and, according to PMC, violative of its policy," Jones wrote. "A jury could reasonably have concluded that the policy letter could create distrust and discord among members of the Life Flight team."
The court rejected the contention that Van could not be terminated for failing to get along with co-workers because whistle-blowing activity inherently creates discord.
"While whistleblowers can perform a valuable public service, such a rule would give potential whistleblowers free rein to create unnecessary discord in their organization by immunizing them from disciplinary action," Jones wrote.
The court also upheld the admission into evidence of an email Van sent the hospital president under a pseudonym.
In the email, Van said the president had a degree in "hospital implosion" and spraying "perfume on the turds."
"This e-mail, sent four years after his termination, was relevant to show that Van carried a grudge and that he could simply not let go of a previous complaint, even when it had been addressed," Jones wrote.