by Michael Fox
Revisiting the only public policy exception to the employment at will rule in Texas, the Supreme Court today holds that a plaintiff who prevails can recover punitive damages in a Sabine Pilot case if he or she can establish the appropriate level of malice. Safeshred v. Martinez(Tx 4.20.12).
Unfortunately for Mr. Martinez, he did not meet that standard, thereby losing his $250,000 punitive damage award (which had already been reduced to $200,000 because of the damage cap under Section 41.008 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code). Given that he had lost his $10,000 mental anguish claim in the Court of Appeals, what once seemed so promising now appears to stand as a judgment of approximately $7,600 in lost wages.
Beyond the impact to Martinez, the Court in an extended discussion on what would constitute malice, provided guidance for the award of exemplary damages in Sabine Pilot cases in the future. In dicta, the Court hinted that the Sabine Pilot cause of actions extends only to termination claims; anything less would not be actionable.
For punitive damages, the Court held the proof must be something more than the normal consequence of the termination itself. It rejected Martinez argument that you could consider the consequences if he had performed the illegal act in question in establishing malice.
More generally, it listed three types of circumstances where malice might arise:
Malice in this case could only be shown by clear and convincing evidence that Safeshred, in firing Martinez, intended or ignored an extreme risk of some additional harm like
interference with his future employment,
terminating him knowing it was unlawful to do so.
There are not a lot of Sabine Pilot cases around, the unique circumstances required and the high burden of a sole standard, re-iterated (although not dwelt upon) in today's decision, make it a hard case to establish.
But for those that do make their way to trial, Safeshred now gives definitive guidance for punitive damages.