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An injured worker’s jury award after he was fired following a workplace injury was upheld Tuesday by a New Mexico appellate court.
In Goodman v. OS Restaurant Services LLC, the New Mexico Court of Appeals unanimously declined to disturb a jury decision that an Outback Steakhouse restaurant violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act when it refused to accommodate and later terminated a worker who injured his ankle on the job.
Justin Goodman was working as a server for an Outback Steakhouse, owned by OS Restaurant Services LLC, when he injured his ankle, which swelled to a size larger than a grapefruit.
Mr. Goodman reported the injury to his supervisor and said he intended to file a workers compensation claim. He said the supervisor suggested that the injury did not occur at work and that no incident report was needed for him to receive medical treatment.
Mr. Goodman said that when he inquired again about filing a claim, his supervisor said he would no longer be promoted to assistant manager if he filed a claim.
Five days after his injury, Mr. Goodman asked for an accommodation to return to work, such as expediting food orders or performing prep work, because his protective boot did not allow him to walk well enough to continue to be a server. The request was denied, and five weeks later he was terminated because he had not worked in 30 days.
Mr. Goodman filed a complaint against Outback alleging that the restaurant unlawfully discriminated against him under the New Mexico Human Rights Act based on his perceived disability and that its actions constituted a bad faith workers compensation retaliation claim. He also claimed retaliatory discharge for filing a workers comp claim.
A jury concluded that Outback violated the state’s Human Rights Act and awarded him $60,000 in damages for lost wages and $35,000 for emotional distress.
Outback appealed, seeking a reversal of the jury verdict or a new trial, arguing that the Act did not protect Mr. Goodman from retaliation based on filing a workers comp claim and that he failed to show he was disabled.
The appellate court affirmed the jury’s decision. It found that Mr. Goodman established that Outback regarded him as disabled after his injury and declined to review Outback’s contention that a workers comp claim filing cannot be the basis for liability under the Act.
Evidence in the record supported Mr. Goodman’s contention that Outback regarded him as disabled from his workplace injury, the court said, and the jury’s verdict only stated that Outback violated the Act, but didn’t specify how it did so — whether it was based on disability discrimination or the protected activity of filing a workers compensation claim.