In a recent lawsuit before the Superior Court of New Jersey in Hudson County, a jury unanimously awarded $2.1 million in punitive damages to a hospital lab technician after finding his employer retaliated against him for having reported “improper blood bank staffing and management procedures” in violation of New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. § 34:19-1, et seq. This blog posting summarizes the allegations in Doculan v. Bayonne Medical Center, No. HUD-L-6670-10 (Law Div. May 7, 2013). This verdict is yet another wake-up call for employers faced with whistleblower claims.
Background. Defendant Bayonne Medical Center (BMC) employed Plaintiff Ceferino Doculan, Jr. as a generalist medical technologist for nearly two decades. Doculan allegedly made several complaints to hospital management, the human relations department and the director of the laboratory department regarding unlawful staffing practices at BMC. Doculan also allegedly reported that his new supervisor lacked credentials required by law and that she misrepresented her previous work experience as a blood banker. After making these complaints, Doculan claimed that he was “repeatedly disciplined” without cause, and ultimately terminated on September 20, 2010. Shortly after his termination, Doculan filed his CEPA claim in state court, maintaining that BMC took adverse action against him for blowing the whistle.
Jury verdict. On May 7, 2013, a unanimous jury awarded Doculan $80,000 for lost wages, $60,000 in pain and suffering, and, significantly, $2.1 million in punitive damages. (Although New Jersey law, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.14(c), caps punitive damages at five times the amount of compensatory damages or $350,000, whichever is greater, it exempts CEPA.) BMC has stated that it plans to appeal the verdict.
Implications. This award highlights the serious risks NJ employers face under the CEPA. And for multi-state employers, this verdict exhibits the recent national trend of juries awarding multi-million dollar judgments in favor of whistleblowers. Accordingly, employers must carefully review and refine their whistleblower policies and attendant practices.