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Indiana Supreme Court Reinstates $325,000 Jury Verdict in "Workplace Bullying" Case

  • April 25, 2008

A trial court allowing an expert to characterize a workplace incident as “an episode of workplace bullying” and refusing to instruct the jury that there is no “workplace bullying” cause of action did not require reversal of a $325,000 jury verdict for the plaintiff, the Indiana Supreme Court concludes. Raess v. Doescher, 883 N.E.2d 790 (Apr. 8, 2008).

The defendant was a cardiovascular surgeon at the Indianapolis hospital where the plaintiff served as a perfusionist (one who operates the heart/lung machine during open heart surgeries). Following a verbal altercation with the defendant, the plaintiff brought suit for assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference with employment. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant on the tortious interference with employment claim. The two remaining claims went to the jury.

At trial, the plaintiff testified that the defendant, angry about the plaintiff’s previous reports about the defendant to the hospital, aggressively and rapidly approached the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screamed and swore at him. The defendant then stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, stopping to say to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The plaintiff’s expert at trial, a psychologist, characterized the confrontation between the plaintiff and defendant as “an episode of workplace bullying” and the defendant as a “workplace abuser.” Further, the plaintiff’s attorney referred to the defendant as a “bully” in his opening statement, and referred to “bullying” numerous times in his closing argument. The plaintiff’s attorney concluded his closing argument by stating, “We ask for a verdict in favor of [the plaintiff]. And, yes, that’s a verdict against workplace bullying and against the bullying incident.” The jury returned with a verdict for the plaintiff of $325,000.

The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. First, it held that the value of the expert testimony regarding “workplace bullying” was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to the defendant. It found the testimony provided little evidence that an assault had occurred or that the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress on the plaintiff. Additionally, the appellate court held that the trial court’s refusal to give the defendant’s proposed jury instruction that workplace bullying was not a recognized cause of action was reversible error.

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury verdict. The Supreme Court set aside the defendant’s challenge to the expert testimony on procedural grounds, stating that the defense counsel did not properly object to the testimony at trial and, therefore, the testimony was admissible. With respect to the defendant’s proposed jury instruction that workplace bullying does not constitute a cause of action under Indiana law, the Court reviewed the instruction in light of the claims of assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The defendant’s proposed jury instruction stated:

“Workplace bullying” is not at issue in this matter, nor is there any basis in the law for a claim of “workplace bullying.” In other words, you are not to determine whether or not the Defendant … was a “workplace bully.” The issues are as I have instructed you: whether the Defendant assaulted the Plaintiff … and whether that assault constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court noted that, in determining whether an assault occurred, the behavior of the defendant was at issue. Moreover, the term “workplace bullying,” like other terms used to characterize a person’s behavior, is an appropriate consideration in determining the issues before the jury. Also, the Court held, workplace bullying could be considered a form of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Given these considerations, as well as the trial court’s instructions to the jury regarding the evidence needed to prove the plaintiff’s assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, refusal to give the defendant’s instruction was not an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

The Court’s opinion may provide plaintiffs an additional opportunity to pursue claims beyond traditional harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As a result, employers should ensure that managers and supervisors receive appropriate training in proper supervisory techniques, as well as in avoiding claims of workplace harassment.

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to answer inquiries about this decision and to assist in all areas of workplace law.

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