Hospital Whistle-Blower Loses Retaliation Claim
(CN) - Nixing retaliation claims from a whistle-blowing hospital employee, the Idaho Supreme Court found that he could have been fired for unrelated reasons.
Mark Van started working for Portneuf Medical Center as a mechanic in 1986 and became head of maintenance in 1997.
When the Life Flight helicopter that Van maintained crashed in 2001, Van sought to defend his department against blame piled on by the public and the media. He began reporting, among other things, 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," the Idaho Supreme Court noted in its Aug. 1 ruling.
Van also objected to a contract proposal for a new helicopter, stating the contract contained loopholes that would let the vendor escape maintenance responsibilities.
The National Transportation Safety Board nevertheless blamed the crash on pilot error, not any mechanical problems, and Portneuf fired Van in 2005 for his failure to maintain positive relationship with his co-workers.
Van sued in 2005 but a Bannock County jury found no violation of Idaho's Whistleblower Act because of evidence that Van was not fired for engaging in protected whistle-blowing activities.
In affirming on Aug. 1, the Idaho Supreme Court noted evidence showing "that PMC was generally responsive to Van's [safety] concerns and implemented policies to address a number of them."
"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," Justice Jim Jones wrote for the court.
Van's letter that suggested the removal of a plane's battery to prevent a pilot from making a potentially unsafe flight is one example of Van's "inability to let go," according to the 16-page 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 also rejected Van's contention whistle-blowing inherently creates discord, making his termination for failing to get along with co-workers improper.
"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 lastly declined to take issue with the introduction into evidence of an email that Van wrote to 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.