Visiting Louisville to talk about workplace bullying and the law

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I was fortunate to make my first-ever visit to Louisville, Kentucky, to speak at the annual Warns-Render Labor and Employment Law Institute, a major regional continuing legal education program sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law.

I gave an overview of workplace bullying and attendant legal issues. I was delighted to be joined by Indiana attorney Kevin Betz, lead counsel on the Raess v. Doescher litigation that culminated in a 2008 Indiana Supreme Court decision and helped to bring wide attention to legal issues surrounding workplace bullying. Here’s what I wrote about the case in 2009:

In the 2008 case of Raess v. Doescher, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award of $325,000 for assault to a perfusionist (operator of “a heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries”) who brought an action against a surgeon for an altercation at a hospital. The claim was based on the following factual allegations:

(T)he defendant, angry at the plaintiff about reports to the hospital administration about the defendant’s treatment of other perfusionists, aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him. The plaintiff backed up against a wall and puts his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him…. Then the defendant suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, momentarily stopping to declare to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The Court’s decision was based largely on procedural and evidentiary issues. It rejected a challenge to expert testimony about workplace bullying rendered by Dr. Gary Namie for the plaintiff, finding there was nothing in the record to suggest that Namie’s testimony was inadmissible, and ultimately holding that the issue was not properly preserved for appellate review. It also held that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in refusing” the defendant’s tendered jury instruction concerning workplace bullying.

The legal impact of Raess v. Doescher with regard to workplace bullying is modest because of the limited scope of the Indiana Supreme Court’s holdings. It created no new legal claim, and did not expand substantive tort law in a way that might pave the way for future plaintiffs. However, the decision has received national attention because the media characterized it as a successful workplace bullying claim. It has been cited as evidence of a growing liability risk that counsels employers to take workplace bullying more seriously.

Continuing legal education programs are a useful way to introduce legal issues relevant to workplace bullying to practicing attorneys, and this was an enjoyable, albeit all-to-brief(!) opportunity to do so. Many thanks to the folks at the University of Louisville, especially professor Ariana Levinson, ombudsman Tony Belak, conference chair Don Meade, and administrator Margaret Bratcher for facilitating my visit and their kind hospitality.

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