March 16, 2010: In a decision issued on March 15, 2010, Department of Labor Judge Daniel Leland ruled that New Prime, Inc. (also known as "Prime") illegally fired Cynthia Ferguson because she refused to continue operating a commercial vehicle in hazardous weather.
In Ferguson v. New Prime, Inc., Ferguson, a leased driver for Prime, was fired shortly after she refused to drive through Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a loaded tractor-trailer set during hazardous weather. Paul Taylor of the Truckers Justice Center filed a claim on behalf of Ferguson with the Department of Labor. Prime alleged that it fired Ferguson because she operated the truck at a deficit.
Near Reno, Nevada on Christmas, 2008, Ms. Ferguson observed hazardous driving conditions as she drove. After consulting other drivers, listening to radio weather reports and receiving reports from the state authorities advising against travel, Ferguson advised Prime via Qualcomm that she was not going to drive through Donner Pass until weather and driving conditions improved. When her dispatcher, Jeremy Thomas, read the message he told her "why didn't you cross it [Donner Pass] yesterday? You should have been across the country twice by now." A few days later Thomas recommended that Prime fire Ferguson, which management did.
Judge Leland found that Prime violated the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which prohibits trucking companies from firing drivers for refusing to drive in violation of commercial vehicle safety regulations. Judge Leland held that Ferguson's refusal to drive was legally protected because violations of DOT regulations would have occurred but for Ferguson's refusal to drive in the hazardous weather. Judge Leland credited Ferguson's testimony noting that she properly relied upon reliable reports of bad weather and unsafe driving conditions through Donner Pass. In finding that Prime fired Ferguson because of her refusal to drive in hazardous weather, Judge Leland relied on an "incident report" prepared by Thomas noting that Ferguson refused to drive through Donner Pass and recommending that she be fired.
Judge Leland ordered Prime to reinstate Ms. Ferguson as a driver, pay back wages of more than $26,600, pay $50,000 as compensation for Ferguson's emotional distress, and pay $75,000 in punitive damages. Judge Leland also ordered Prime to pay Ms. Ferguson's attorney fees, and remove unfavorable information from her DAC Report.
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