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September 29, 2010
Did Employee Lie About Injury?
A Chicago baggage handler reported he’d injured his arm lifting a golf bag, but his behavior made his supervisor suspicious of his honesty. Surveillance cast doubt on his claim, and he was called to the type of hearing specified in the collective bargaining agreement between his union and the airline. But the hearing allegedly upset him far more than the injury did, and thereby hangs this tale.

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What happened. “Catello” was an American Airlines baggage handler at O’Hare. He finished his shift on a Friday but told his boss on Monday that he had hurt his left arm that Friday. The boss reported the injury to American’s workers’ compensation contractor and asked Catello to participate in the airline’s standard post-injury debriefing (done to learn how workers are injured and avoid repetitions). But Catello refused, saying he was in too much pain. Having seen Catello use his left arm and hand without apparent discomfort, the supervisor was even more suspicious, which he reported.

Other supervisors put Catello under surveillance, which showed him using his left arm frequently. So American arranged for a hearing, as provided in Article 29F of the union contract. But there, Catello refused to answer most questions with anything but “I don’t recall.” One of the few questions he did answer—whether he’d used his left arm at all in the days after the injury—brought a “No.” When Catello was next asked to submit a written narrative of how the injury had occurred and what had happened since, he refused. Then he turned in two pages that only protested the Article 29F hearing.

He was fired that afternoon, for insubordination and dissembling at the hearing. He sued, claiming he was fired in retaliation for the workers’ compensation claim he had yet to file. The case was sent to a jury in federal district court, where Catello’s attorney focused entirely on the allegedly unfair and intimidating 29F hearing. The jury awarded Catello more than $1 million, mostly in punitive damages. American appealed to the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

What the court said. Appellate judges felt very strongly that American had the right to fire Catello, especially since he told the jury his ‘no’ to the use-the-arm-after-the-injury question had been a lie. They reversed the jury award, harshly criticizing Catello’s lawyer for “hijacking” the jury. Casanova v. American Airlines, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 09-1020 (8/5/10).

Point to remember: Judges felt the case against American was so weak it should never have gone to a jury.

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