A federal jury awarded more than $36 million to a man who alleged he applied for a trucking driving position in 2015 but was denied because he is deaf, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Friday.
The plaintiff, whose disability substantially limited major life activities and bodily functions including his ability to hear and speak, used a combination of American Sign Language and assistive technologies to manage his impairment, according to court documents.
In 2015, he received an exemption from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s federal hearing regulations for commercial motor vehicle operations and sent a pre-application for employment with transportation company Werner Enterprises while completing truck driving school.
The plaintiff received his commercial driver license in early 2016 and proceeded to move through Werner’s recruiting process. Despite his application being pre-approved, a Werner vice president told the plaintiff in a phone interview that he would not be hired because he could not hear, according to the suit.
During a phone call with the plaintiff, the executive had asked him whether he would be able to complete Werner’s training and fulfill the job duties given his deafness. The plaintiff said he could do so by frequently checking mirrors, and he added that he used his other senses to compensate and could write and gesture with trainers, per the suit.
EEOC, which filed on behalf of the plaintiff, said the Werner executive did not propose nor further investigate any means of accommodation that would allow the plaintiff to perform the job.
“Werner’s refusal to acknowledge [the plaintiff]’s abilities hurt not only him, but the entire Deaf community,” Joshua M. Pierson, Meredith S. Berwick and Lauren Wilson, members of EEOC’s trial team, said in a press release announcing the verdict. “As this verdict demonstrates, companies like Werner that deny reasonable accommodations to drivers with disabilities do so at their peril.”
Following the alleged discrimination, the plaintiff “has since been hired by multiple commercial truck driving companies and successfully worked as a commercial truck driver,” EEOC said in the suit.
The jury awarded the plaintiff $75,000 in actual damages and $36 million in punitive damages, finding that Werner and subsidiary Drivers Management, LLC failed to hire and accommodate him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jury awards in bias cases are sometimes reduced to meet statutory caps.
In a statement to HR Dive, Werner said it was “disappointed” in the decision, adding that a jury in the same federal district sided with the company in June in a separate case, Deuschle v. Werner Enterprise, also involving a deaf applicant who applied for a truck driver position. Werner said it is evaluating options relative to an appeal of the decision.
“The company operates with the mantra that nothing we do is worth getting hurt or hurting others, whether that be its professional drivers, customers or the motoring public at large” Werner said. “Werner prides itself on fostering an inclusive workplace where our associates are encouraged to bring their full selves to work, including our valued associates who may have a disability.”