Idaho’s tort law limiting damage awards in lawsuits does not apply to the state’s whistleblower law, according to a Tuesday ruling by the Idaho Supreme Court. The justices rejected a lower court’s decision to limit the amount of money awarded to a State Police detective who exposed a cover-up of another deputy’s dangerous actions.
In 2017, a jury awarded Detective Brandon Eller $30,000 in economic damages under the state’s Protections of Public Employees Act. The judge ruled that he was not entitled to non-economic damages under the whistleblower law, but he was awarded $1.5 million for a “negligent infliction of emotional distress” claim. The court reduced that to claim to $1,000,000 because Idaho Tort Claims Act caps damages at $500,000 for each incident.
Ultimately, while both statutes provide avenues for relief for citizens injured at the hands of government actors, the Whistleblower Act provides statutory remedies which supplant, and thus preclude, common law causes of action. The differences are evident on the face of each statute. The ITCA (Idaho Tort Claims Act) applies to torts; the Whistleblower Act applies to any damages caused by adverse employment actions taken against governmental employees. The ITCA limits damages to $500,000 per occurrence; the Whistleblower Act does not limit damages, but provides that a wronged employee is entitled to actual damages for injury or loss caused by each violation.
The Idaho high court also dismissed the state’s argument that the officer is not entitled to recover emotional distress damages under the state’s whistleblower laws. The court ordered a “partial trial” to reconsider the impact of that ruling on the non-economic damages in the case.
The National Whistleblower Center filed an amicus curiae brief supporting that interpretation of the law. Like other whistleblowers, Eller was harassed by co-workers and forced out of his job when he testified against a coworker. A crash reconstructionist, Eller testified that a fellow officer was negligent when he was involved in a fatal crash during a 911 call.
From the brief:
Allowing the award of emotional distress damages under the Whistleblower Act to Eller (and other plaintiffs) facing the consequences which Eller has faced will more fully compensate for the actual damages suffered. It will also constitute an important step toward ensuring that responsible whistleblowers come forward with legitimate evidence of wrongdoing by government officials, notwithstanding the very real risk of receiving adverse treatment from those same and other government officials for doing so.
More on the case:
Idaho Reports: Idaho Supreme Court upholds state police whistleblower case, opens door to higher damages
Boise Weekly: Idaho Supreme Court Upholds ISP Whistleblower Verdict, Slaps Down Cap on Damages
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