Trucker trainee keeps $150K verdict in sexual harassment case
May 6, 2021
A female truck driver trainee will collect $150,000 from West TN Expediting after a federal appeals court affirmed a lower court’s jury verdict in a sexual harassment case.
On April 27, a panel for the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Tennessee federal district court’s $150,000 verdict against Ripley, Tenn.-based West TN Expediting. A former trainee accused the company of wrongfully firing her after she repeatedly had been sexually harassed by her trainer while out on the road.
“When one employee assaults another, the answer isn’t to let the victim go,” the appeals court states. “But that’s exactly what this Tennessee trucking company did.”
According to the unpublished opinion, the plaintiff wanted to be a truck driver and needed her CDL. Hired by West TN Expediting as a trainee, the woman accompanied a company driver, James Corbin, on runs. The plan was for her to acquire enough knowledge and experience to pass the driving test.
This plan “started badly and ended quickly,” the appellate panel points out. During one of the first nights on the road, the trainee woke up to Corbin grabbing her breast. She screamed and told Corbin to get away. The incident was reported to management when the two arrived home. According to the complaint, Terri Peevyhouse, second in command at West TN Expediting, said she would take care of it. However, the plaintiff alleges Peevyhouse did nothing and told no one.
Despite knowing about the first assault, Peevyhouse continued to pair up the female trainee with Corbin on the driving schedule.
The harassment would continue for two months, including Corbin making lewd comments and trying to touch the trainee. Under the impression Peevyhouse was working on a solution, the trainee did not say anything to management.
However, a line was crossed one night when Corbin touched the trainee between the legs while she was sleeping. She told Corbin she would tell Jeff Buckner, owner of West TN Expediting. Corbin shrugged it off, informing the trainee she will lose her job if she did. Despite the warning, the trainee reported Corbin.
After that incident, Peevyhouse and Buckner came to the conclusion that the trainee could not ride with Corbin. Their solution was to hire her boyfriend, also a truck driver, to finish her training. Unfortunately, her boyfriend already had a job that he did not want to leave. Because the trainee could not drive alone without a CDL, could not ride with Corbin or have her boyfriend train her, Peevyhouse told her not to come back to work, effectively ending her employment with West TN Expediting.
“In the end, Corbin was right: Once Peterson reported the assault, she was never again added to the company’s work schedule” the appellate panel states. “Corbin, on the other hand, continued to work for West TN.”
Consequently, the trainee filed a lawsuit against the company.
During trial, it was discovered that West TN Expediting employs more than 150 truck drivers. Velma Hernandez, another female trucker, is among those drivers.
Hernandez said she would train the aspiring trucker. However, the trainee was never told about Hernandez’s offer.
A jury found that West TN Expediting was not liable for Corbin’s harassment. However, the jury did find the company liable for firing the trainee in retaliation for her complaints. She was awarded $50,000 in lost wages and $100,000 in punitive damages.
The company moved for a new trial, claiming the jury’s verdict were against the clear weight of the evidence. Both the district and appellate court disagreed.
Regarding the retaliation finding, both Peevyhouse and Buckner told the jury that the trainee would likely have remained on the work schedule had she not reported Corbin. According to the appellate panel, “that’s all the jury needed to find that (the trainee) had satisfied the causal element of her claim.” LL