Employers Beware Punitive Damages in Wrongful Termination Cases

January 25th, 2017

Employers Beware Punitive Damages in Wrongful Termination Cases

By:  Nicole D. Lindsey and Heather Rooney McBride

A jury in a Greene County Circuit Court case recently awarded $750,000 in punitive damages to a doctor who claimed wrongful termination from a Springfield hospital, despite only finding $1,000 in actual damages.


Doctor claimed she was improperly terminated from employment at a Springfield hospital.  She had complained over the years about practices she felt were unnecessary, including consults and testing, but also situations where she felt patients were not being given clear information as to how things happen in a hospital as part of their patient treatment.  She was terminated in 2013 after working for the hospital since 2007.


In early 2012, Doctor disagreed with another physician over a consultation that had been ordered on a Medicare patient.  Doctor believed the action to be duplicative and reported the issue to the appropriate department of the hospital.  She even raised the possibility of taking up the matter with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”).


According to Doctor, after she reported the issue, there were a series of emails exchanged between the section chair, the department chair, and human resources where the Hospital started examining Doctor’s care and treatment of patients and then peer reviewing her care and treatment.  Doctor argued the Hospital began a pattern of harassment and retaliation after her report because she had previously objected to unnecessary treatment and billing.


Doctor never made a formal report to CMS, but her claim was brought under Missouri’s common law that bans retaliation when an employee acts in a manner encouraged by public policy, which makes such report a “protected report.”


Hospital claimed Doctor had issues going back for some time and attempted to bring in things from ten years prior, arguing it had a basis for terminating Doctor.  Doctor countered with documentation that she met criteria for bonuses that were given out by Hospital for meeting patient satisfaction marks.  Doctor also pointed out that she had not been peer reviewed at any time during her employment – until after she made the report.  Doctor also recorded a meeting in which management at Hospital allegedly suggested that if Doctor did not sign a release agreement, Hospital might move to suspend her privileges, which would trigger a report of Doctor to the National Practitioner Data Bank.


Doctor did not have any substantive financial losses because she was able to obtain work quickly after her termination.  Thus, the actual damages awarded by the jury were only $1,000.  However, based on the evidence relating to the wrongful termination claim, the jury awarded Doctor $750,000 in punitive, or “punishment”, damages against Hospital.


What is the takeaway from this case, particularly for employers in Green County and Southwest Missouri?  Employers need to be very careful to follow up on whistle blowing claims and other meritorious complaints of employees and should also carefully assess whether termination of an employee who has complained is well-timed and well-documented.


If you are an employer in need of human resources, employment law, or corporate compliance advice, please contact Attorney Heather Rooney McBride today.