A former Beelman Ready Mix employee’s suit alleging retaliatory discharge after refusing to drive an unsafe dump truck is at trial in St. Clair County Associate Judge Chris Kolker’s courtroom.
The case was previously assigned to Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson before it was passed to Kolker.
Plaintiff Michael Chatterton filed his lawsuit against Beelman on March 13, 2014.
He claims he worked for defendant Beelman as a truck driver for approximately 10 years before filing his retaliatory discharge suit.
Chatterton alleges he was discharged by Beelman on Oct. 1, 2013, after he advised the defendant that the dump truck the plaintiff was scheduled to drive was unsafe to operate on public roadways and that he would not drive it.
He specifically alleged the dump truck “lacked proper mirrors.” He claims the defendant unsuccessfully attempted to fix the damaged mirrors by trying to duct tape them in place.
However, Chatterton acknowledged that he backed the truck into a parked vehicle on Beelman’s property, damaging the truck. The defendant relied upon the collision for discharging the plaintiff.
In its April 14, 2014 answer, the defendant denied that the plaintiff was discharged for improper reasons.
Beelman filed a counterclaim for damages of $6,872.22 on May 14, 2014.
Beelman later filed a third amended answer, arguing that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel barred Chatterton’s claim based on a final and binding arbitration. The defendant also moved for summary judgment on March 6, 2015.
According to the arbitration transcript before arbitrator Mark Suardi, the parties questioned whether there was just cause for Chatterton’s discharge and the what the appropriate remedy would be.
Michal Atchison, plant manager of the Sandoval, Ill., facility, testified for the arbitration proceeding that on the morning in question, Chatterton never said anything to him about the unsafe mirrors.
He added that Chatterton had the least seniority, but when he was given his directions for the day he began yelling that it was discrimination to make him drive the dump truck.
Atchison said Chatterton still failed to mention the mirrors and was ordered to get in the dump truck and go to Mt. Vernon. He said he then heard the dump truck “barreling out of the shop” and crashed into a parked cement mixer truck.
However, he admitted that he only heard the collision and that he did not note speed as a cause of the accident on the report.
Kevin Whipple, assistant general manager, testified for the arbitration proceeding that the plaintiff wanted to stay local and run a mixer instead of driving to Mt. Vernon.
He added that while he couldn’t see the collision, he could tell that Chatterton was driving too fast.
Ultimately, he was the one who made the decision to discharge Chatterton for incompetence.
Chatterton still failed to mention the alleged broken mirror, he said.
The plaintiff testified on his own behalf for the arbitration proceeding, stating that he told Whipple the truck was unsafe but was ordered to drive it anyway.
He added that it was pitch dark outside and he could not see when trying to back the dump truck out of the shop. He claims he was in “granny low” gear because the truck had transmission problems, which means he would have been driving one or two miles per hour.
However, employee Bill Williams said that the transmission issue actually required the dump truck be backed up in a higher gear, meaning it increased the speed rather than limited the speed.
In its motion for summary judgment, Beelman included a copy of the arbitrator’s July 2014 decision, where he found that testimony shows that Chatterton was angry at the time of the collision. He also concluded that the dump truck in question was safe to drive.
Gleeson converted Beelman’s motion for summary judgment into a motion to dismiss and granted the converted motion on June 30, 2015.
Chatterton filed an amended complaint on July 31, 2015.
A second motion to dismiss was granted Nov. 25, 2015.
On Nov. 28, 2016, the Fifth District Appellate Court filed a Rule 23 decision in favor of Chatterton, reversing Gleeson’s order granting dismissal.
The appeals court quoted the Illinois Supreme Court, which held that a trial judge would determine whether the discharge was in contravention of the state’s public policy while an arbitrator would determine whether the employer’s motive constituted “just cause.”
“The court noted that while an arbitrator was certainly competent to determine factual issues underlying a retaliatory discharge claim, an arbitrator nevertheless would have ‘no competence and, indeed, no mandate to determine whether the motives for the discharge contravene a clearly mandated public policy,’” Justice James “Randy” Moore wrote in the appellate decision.
The appeals court concluded that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel do not bar the plaintiff’s claim in this case, and the circuit court erred when it granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
“We take no position with regard to whether the plaintiff will ultimately be able to prove his retaliatory discharge claim,” Moore wrote.
The case was remanded for further proceedings.
St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 14-L-221