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Legal Myths: The West Virginia “Pickle-Jar” Case

In July, 1997 the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld $2.2 million of a $2,699,000 punitive damage award, $130,000 in compensatory damages and $170,000 in non-economic damages against Sheetz Inc., a convenience store chain in a case filed by a former employee.

In no time so-called tort “reform” advocates were using this as a poster case for legal reform. They characterized the case as an “astonishing” award for a worker who “injured her back when she opened a pickle jar.” They cried that this “outrageous” sum was a glaring example of a “legal system that’s out of control.” However, the proponents of immunizing corporate wrongdoers conveniently left out the facts of the case, painting it as a legal “horror story” to further their industry-driven campaign to limit the legal rights of consumers in order to maximize corporate profits.

A close look at the facts reveals that this case has nothing to do with pickles. The two punitive damage awards were made for separate offenses committed by Sheetz:

  • Unlawful termination under the West Virginia Workers Compensation Law, failure to accommodate the plaintiff’s disability under the West Virginia Human Rights Law by refusing to allow her to return to work and then refusing to allow her to apply to be rehired (originally $1.575 million in punitive damages reduced to $1.109 million (5 times compensatory damages));
  • Retaliation against the plaintiff when she returned to work ($1.124 million).

While the West Virginia Supreme Court reduced the first award, it upheld the full amount of the second because “…evidence introduced in connection with this claim crossed the line from reckless disregard of an individual’s rights to willful, mean-spirited acts indicative of an intent to cause physical or emotional harm to [Ms. Vandevender] in connection with her injury and resulting claims against Sheetz.” (Emphasis added)

The Facts

Cheryl Vandevender was first hired as a salesperson by Sheetz in 1989. Within six months she was promoted to assistant manager. In 1991, Ms. Vandevender suffered a back injury on the job that eventually forced her to stop working. She began receiving workers compensation benefits from Sheetz in connection with her injury while out of work, and in October of 1991 underwent back surgery. Nearly a year later, Ms. Vandevender met with the Sheetz store manager to inform her that she was able to return to work, although she could not lift heavy objects. The store manager informed her that she could not return to work, pursuant to company policy, unless she was “100%.”

Ms. Vandevender was consequently fired by Sheetz according to a company policy which states that “[a]ny employee of Sheetz, Inc. who is absent from work due to disability (either work or non-work related) or illness for a total of 12 consecutive months shall be considered to have resigned…” Not long after, Ms. Vandevender was deemed to have reached “maximum degree of medical improvement” by a workers compensation physician and thus stopped receiving compensation benefits.

Ms. Vandevender filed a civil action against Sheetz for refusing to rehire her. During this trial the store manager testified that Ms. Vandevender could have been accommodated at work since lifting heavy objects at work was not essential. In light of this testimony, Ms. Vandevender demanded to be returned to her job. The store manager who testified was fired shortly after the case.

Ms. Vandevender was reinstated at Sheetz as a sales clerk in 1995. Before returning to work, Sheetz required her to undergo a medical examination to determine work restrictions. The restrictions resulting from this exam included lifting only fifteen pounds at a time. However, on her first day back the regional manager purposefully ignored any physical limitations and ordered Ms. Vandevender to stock a cooler. After only twenty minutes, her back was re-injured.

The Findings

In assessing a punitive damage award, both the County and Supreme Courts considered the following:

  • In its opening statement, Sheetz, Inc. admitted that the company policy of not allowing injured workers to return to work until they are “100%” recovered, as well as its policy to discharge employees absent for a year are discriminatory acts which violate both West Virginia state law and public policy. In addition, Sheetz, Inc.’s intent to discriminate against the disabled is demonstrated by its bonus system that penalizes managers with higher Workers’ Compensation expenses. To increase their bonuses, Sheetz, Inc. managers prefer to see disabled employees fired instead of carrying the expense and risk of a worsened compensation rating.
  • Sheetz, Inc persisted with its illegal course of discriminatory conduct for nearly five years. In addition, Sheetz, Inc. stonewalled the plaintiff’s early offer to settle for “$30,000 plus her job back.”
  • Sheetz, Inc. accumulates $1.5 million in sales every day. Thus, the $2.2 million punitive damage award amounts to not even a day and a half worth of sales.
  • Evidence was presented to the court that Sheetz undertook retaliatory surveillance efforts in connection with Ms. Vandevender’s return to work and later visits to the store. Various sales clerks began taking pictures of Ms. Vandevender when she shopped at the store. These pictures made their way to Sheetz, Inc.’s regional headquarters, however, “no one accepted responsibility at trial for this surveillance.”
  • Factual evidence introduced in the case proved Sheetz’ further improper conduct and “deceitful tactics” toward Ms. Vandevender when, despite notification from a medical examiner, the regional manager purposefully ignored any knowledge of physical limitations in returning Ms.Vandevender to work.

In light of the facts, the damages award in this case was not only justifiable in reprimanding an irresponsible corporation, it is a shining example of the ability of the U.S. civil jury system to serve as a means for employees and consumers to hold corporations accountable for their wrongdoings.