Can a Witness to Co-Worker’s Accident Bring a Retaliatory Discharge Claim After Being Fired Because He Was a Witness?

Posted on Aug 24 2014 9:05PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision of Phillip Dean Patrick v. Nelson Global Products, Inc., No. E2013-02444-COA-R3-CV, 2014 WL 3763677 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014) discussed whether a former employee can bring a retaliatory discharge claim against their employer for being terminated allegedly because he was a witness to a co-workers’ work related injury.  In this case, the plaintiff asserted that he was standing near a co-worker when the co-worker suffered a work related injury.  That co-worker filed a workers’ compensation claim.  Shortly thereafter the employer terminated the plaintiff (not the individual who was actually injured in the workers’ compensation injury incident).  The plaintiff asserts he was terminated because he was a witness to the co-worker’s work injury and that this was a substantial factor in his termination.  As a result, he brought a retaliatory discharge case against his employer.


The Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that in order to prevail on a retaliatory discharge claim in Tennessee, there are four essential elements.  These elements are as follows:


(1) that an employment-at-will relationship existed;

(2) that the employee was discharged;

(3) that the reason for the discharge was that the employee attempted to exercise a statutory or constitutional right, or for any other reason which violates a clear public policy evidenced by an unambiguous constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision; and

(4) that a substantial factor in the employer's decision to discharge the employee was the employee's exercise of protected rights or compliance with clear public policy.


Patrick at 3 (Citing Tennessee Supreme Court decision Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422 (Tenn. 2011)).  The Court found that the plaintiff clearly could establish elements number one and two.  However, there were significant problems with plaintiff’s ability to establish elements number three and four.


The Tennessee Court of Appeals found that plaintiff’s claim could not prevail under Tennessee law because the plaintiff could not establish essential elements number three and four.  The Court found:


An examination of the complaint makes it evident that Plaintiff cannot prevail. He does not allege that he was terminated because of his own exercise of a statutory or constitutional right. Plaintiff was not an injured employee attempting to exercise his right to seek the Act's benefits as a result of a work-related accident. Plaintiff does not even allege that Sprankles' right to seek compensation for his work injury was chilled or otherwise impeded. Moreover, his insistence that his termination violates the clear public policy of the Act is at best a bald, conclusory allegation that we do not accept.


Patrick at 4.  As a result, the Tennessee Court of Appeals found that simply being a witness to a workers’ compensation injury and subsequently being terminated due to being a witness does not provide a basis for a retaliatory discharge claim under Tennessee law.  The proposed new Tennessee cause of action presented in this case was quite a stretch and I think the Tennessee Court of Appeals dealt with this correctly.  Expanding protections in a retaliatory discharge claim to simple bystanders or witnesses of work accident would potentially greatly broaden retaliatory discharge litigation in this area and it really does not serve the legitimate public policy purposes for retaliatory discharge cause of action.  This is a good case for employers in Tennessee and should be cited when there are attempts to expand the retaliatory discharge doctrine in Tennessee.


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TAGS: Torts, Tennessee Workers Compensation, Employment Law
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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