North Carolina courts recognize a limited exception to the normal employment at-will doctrine. If an employee is terminated for reasons that violate state public policy, the plaintiff may pursue a common law tort claim to address the personal injury suffered. Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a decision analyzing the types of damages that a jury may award to a successful plaintiff in a wrongful discharge action.
Blakely v. Town of Taylortown involved a wrongful discharge claim by the former Chief of Police who claimed he was terminated for refusing to disclose to Town Council members the identities of confidential police informants. In addition to back wages and other economic damages, the jury awarded the plaintiff damages for emotional distress and for future lost wages. The defendant appealed, claiming that these types of damages are not available under the state’s wrongful discharge tort.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, affirming (although slightly reducing) the damages award. The court refused to impose a standard for damages that would require extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant, instead adopting the standard damages criteria applicable in other tort actions. In other words, the plaintiff does not have to demonstrate severe emotional damages to recover for emotional distress.
Although plaintiffs do not succeed in many wrongful discharge claims, this decision means that jury verdicts in these matters can include more than the employee’s actual economic losses, without the need to show extraordinarily bad conduct on the part of the employer. Employers faced with suits for wrongful discharge should take these possibilities into account when determining their approach toward defense of the claims.