For Advocates, Boeing Whistleblower Death Highlights Concerns with Retaliation and Protracted Legal Proceedings


John Barnett, a former quality inspector manager for Boeing, was found dead on March 9 in South Carolina. He reportedly died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. For whistleblower advocates, Barnett’s death raises concerns about the retaliatory treatment and the protracted legal proceedings that whistleblowers face. 

David Colapinto, founding partner of the whistleblower firm Kohn, Kohn, & Colapinto, states, “The general public does not understand the lengths whistleblowers go to protect the general public, often facing harassment and hostile workplace environments.” 

Barnett had internally raised claims concerning quality and safety in Boeing’s manufacturing process. He alleged that a series of defaults jeopardized the quality of Boeing products and, more importantly, the safety of those who depended on them. 

In response to his whistleblowing, Barnett allegedly encountered retaliation, which drove him to pursue legal recourse. After being pushed into an early retirement in 2017, he initiated a legal action under the Wendell H. Ford Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century with the Department of Labor. For the past seven years, the administrative proceedings had not scheduled a hearing. It was during the deposition and discovery phase of the proceedings that Barnett allegedly took his own life. 

In many instances, internal complaints, such as Barnett’s safety concerns, can potentially disrupt the production process. Colapinto says that it is common for whistleblowers who raise these issues internally to be faced with orchestrated retaliation by co-workers who are threatened by an interruption in production. “This retaliation campaign is launched to suppress the whistleblower who sounds the alarm, which parallels the metaphor “shooting the messenger.” 

According to research by whistleblower law expert Stephen M. Kohn, whistleblowers who report internally are 90% more likely to initiate retaliation cases. “The disproportionate rate of retaliation faced by internal whistleblowers underscores the importance of offering protections to internal whistleblowers,” said Kohn. According to Kohn, this study demonstrates the need to strengthen internal whistleblower programs to prevent retaliation. 

The events surrounding Barnett’s death emphasize the tremendous challenges whistleblowers face in pursuing justice. Prolonged legal process and retaliation heighten the already troubling cost on whistleblowers’ physical and mental well-being. 

“Self-harm is a tragic action, no person should be subjected to the anguish and trauma Mr. Barnett has faced,” wrote the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) in a statement on Barnett’s passing. “Corruption takes lives and whistleblowers like Mr. Barnett protect the public from the abuse of our trust and keep corporations accountable. Whistleblowers like Mr. Barnett deserve to live and to be celebrated.”

NWC has issued an action alert asking whistleblower supporters to urge Congress to hold Boeing accountable by fully investigating and correcting the safety failures Mr. Barnett reported.

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