The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) is a federal law that prohibits employers from discharging or discriminating against truck drivers for reporting safety violations. 29 U.S.C. § 31105. The STAA also protects an employee from termination for refusing to operate a motor vehicle that violates a safety regulation or because the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to him or herself or the public due to an unsafe condition with the vehicle. To obtain protection under the latter section, the employee must have requested that the employer fix the unsafe condition.
In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed the protections of the STAA. Gaines v. K-Five Construction Corporation, 2014 WL 28601 (7th Cir. Jan. 3, 2014). In that case, Diego Gaines (“Gaines”), an employee of K-Five Construction Corporation (“K-5”), alleged that K-5 violated the STAA when it fired him in retaliation for his complaints about safety issues with K-5’s trucks. Gaines refused to drive his assigned truck, complaining that asphalt covered the tail pan of the truck, presenting safety hazards. In response, K-5 attempted to resolve the issue but ultimately provided Gaines with another truck to drive. After Gaines drove the second truck, he reported what he believed to be safety issues with the steering. Gaines refused to drive the second truck and complained regarding the safety issue in his daily driving report.
The Court held that Gaines’ fear of injury to himself or the public was objectively reasonable considered the circumstances, and thus his refusal to drive both trucks was a “protected activity” under the statute. To meet his burden under the STAA, Gaines next had to prove that his refusal to drive the trucks was a “contributing factor” in the decision to terminate his employment. Gaines easily met this element by presenting evidence that K-5 sent him warnings for refusing to the drive the trucks in question at the same time it fired him and that K-5 fired him for his “repeated” violations of company policy. The Court ultimately reversed the lower court’s ruling in favor of K-5, and held that Gaines was entitled to take his case to a jury.
As part of its defense, K-5 pointed out that Gaines provided inaccurate information in his daily driving report. Gaines argued that any inaccuracies were inadvertent. Reasoning that Congress passed the STAA to encourage truck drivers and other industry employees who see safety problems to report them, the Court noted that refusing to extend its protections simply because the safety problem turned out to be inaccurate would undercut Congress’s goals for the legislation. Therefore, the Gaines Court held that the daily driving report was a “protected activity” under the statute even though it contained inaccurate information because the complaint was reasonable and made in good faith.
In the wake of Gaines, employers in the transportation industry are wise to take extra precautions in handling truck driver’s complaints about safety issues to ensure that they do not violate the employee’s rights under the STAA.