The Supreme Court said Monday it will review a North Carolina case and decide whether nuclear industry ``whistleblowers' allegedly disciplined for complaining about lax safety may sue under state personal-injury laws.
A federal appeals court has said such workers must sue under a special federal law. Another appeals courts has allowed such state-law suits, and the justices' decision is expected to resolve the conflicting rulings.The decision, to be announced by July, will carry a significant practical effect. The federal law does not provide for punitive-damages awards, often the most lucrative part of a successful suit under the corresponding state laws.
M. Travis Payne, a Raleigh attorney involved in the North Carolina case, said he expected the case to affect employees in all industries.
``The case should have implications - there are now perhaps as many as 18 federal statutes that in one way or another protect employees who exercise their rights to engage in protective activity, blow the whistle,' Payne said. ``I don't think it's limited just to the nuclear-employee situations.'
Bush administration lawyers urged reversal of the appeals court's ruling, saying the federal law ``does not pre-empt an employee's state (suit) for intentional infliction of emotional distress resulting from retaliation for making nuclear safety complaints.
Vera English of Wilmington, N.C., worked as a laboratory technician for General Electric at its nuclear fuels manufacturing plant there for almost 12 years before she was fired in July 1984.
Earlier that year, English had complained to both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to her GE supervisors about what she considered serious violations of federal safety standards.
When no corrective action was taken, she deliberately failed to clean up radiation contamination at her work station in what she said was an effort to prove that such contamination was not being detected by safety inspectors.
Although her efforts led to corrective action, she was disciplined and eventually fired.
English sued GE in 1987. Her suit sought, under North Carolina law, reinstatement with back pay and monetary damages for wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Despite being based on state law, English's suit was filed in federal court because GE's headquarters are outside the state.
A federal judge dismissed the state-law suit, ruling that it was pre-empted by ``whistleblower provisions' of the federal Energy Reorganization Act.
The federal law bars nuclear industry employers from firing or otherwise disciplining employees for publicly pointing out alleged safety problems.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of English's suit last April 3.
In seeking Supreme Court review, English's lawyers argued that she ``was treated outrageously and unfairly by General Electric, yet she has received no compensation for the very serious wrongs she has suffered.'