The Idaho Supreme Court gave an aviation safety whistleblower good news on July 7. In Van v. Portneuf Medical Center, the Court remanded Mark Van’s case back to an Idaho trial court to consider his claim of wrongful termination. The Idaho Supreme Court held that the district court judge erred in granting summary judgment to a hospital on the whistleblower part of the lawsuit.
Mark Van had worked as the Portneuf Medical Center since 1986 in helicopter maintenance. After a 2001 crash, Van became more concerned about complying with state and federal safety standards. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the 2001 crash was a result of pilot error, and Van raised concerns about pilots working more hours than allowed. He also raised concerns about loopholes in a maintenance contract with a helicopter vendor. In 2005, the medical center fired Van, citing his, “his inability to maintain positive interpersonal relations with his colleagues and to foster a positive team environment.”
The Idaho Supreme Court made clear that the state’s Whistleblower Act, I.C. § 6-2105(4), protects employees for raising protected concerns reguardless of whether or how an employer addresses the substantive violation. Slip opinion, page 7. The Court also held, however, that raising a concern about a possible future waste of funds is not protected under Idaho law. The Court also affirmed dismissals of Van’s claims for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, Finally, the Court upheld a decision denying Van discovery of the vendor’s proposed contract as Van’s concern about that contract was not protected.
It will be interesting to follow what the medical center says about why it thought Van could not maintain a positive interpersonal relationship with the other staff. Could it be that it was because Van was blowing the whistle on their failure to put safety first? It would be good for courts to recognize that an employer claim that a whistleblower cannot get along with others reflects a stereotype of whistleblowers and is direct evidence of animus against their protected activity.
Other aviation whistleblowers may want to consider filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor under the AIR 21 law. The time limit to file written complaints with OSHA is 90 days.