Boyle v. Vista Eyewear, Inc.

Decision Date05 November 1985
Docket NumberNo. WD,WD
Citation700 S.W.2d 859
Parties122 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2327, 106 Lab.Cas. P 55,731, 2 IER Cases 768 Judy A. BOYLE, Respondent, v. VISTA EYEWEAR, INC. and David A. Baker, Appellants. 34975.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Timothy W. Monsees (argued) and James C. Morrow, Kansas City, for appellants.

J. Michael Murphy, Liberty, for respondent.

Before KENNEDY, P.J., and NUGENT and BERREY, JJ.

NUGENT, Judge.

Vista Eyewear, Inc., and David A. Baker, defendants, appeal from a judgment for plaintiff Judy A. Boyle following a jury verdict awarding Mrs. Boyle $1.00 in actual damages and $15,000 punitive damages for furnishing her a service letter which falsely stated the reasons her employment was terminated. Mrs. Boyle cross-appeals from dismissal of the wrongful discharge count of her petition. We affirm the circuit court's judgment on Counts I and II and reverse its judgment on Count III and remand that count.

Plaintiff, Judy A. Boyle, worked as a lab helper for Vista Eyewear, an optical manufacturing company, from September, 1977, to January 9, 1979, in Vista's bench department. Her duties included hand-edging, hardening and testing eyeglass lenses produced by defendant. The regulations of the United States Food and Drug Administration require all eyeglass manufacturers to test all glass lenses for their resistance to breaking or shattering before such lenses may be sold or distributed to the public.

Plaintiff's evidence tended to establish that the standard industry procedure is to submit all lenses to either a hardening chemical treatment or heat treatment. The "chem-test" process involves an overnight bake of a tray of the glass lenses in a chemical solution. The heat treatment involved the heating of one lens at a time. After either such treatment, to determine whether lenses have sufficiently hardened, the lenses are subjected to an impact test. Each lens is placed in a drop ball machine and a steel ball the size of a quarter is dropped about forty-eight inches through a tube to strike the center of the lens.

Plaintiff and her witnesses testified that the drop ball impact test was never used by Vista and that on all rush jobs and on some other lens jobs the hardening treatment was skipped. Nevertheless, plaintiff was required to initial a form for each set of eyeglasses stating that she had heat or chemically treated and impact tested the lenses.

Mrs. Boyle complained to her supervisor and to defendant David Baker, president and part owner of Vista, about the company's practice of not hardening and testing lenses. When she spoke to Mr. Baker expressing concern about potential injuries to customers' eyes, he said that it was not her worry, that he had insurance that would take care of it if he got sued. Plaintiff told Mr. Baker that "money was a poor substitute for somebody's eyesight." She testified that Baker "was very aggravated with me. He told me ..., 'Just go do what you're told. I don't want to hear any more about it.' "

She warned her employer that she would report the violations of the law to governmental authorities, but defendant continued their practice. During her tenure with Vista, she repeatedly urged her employer to make certain that the lenses were hardened and tested in a manner consistent with what she believed to be the law.

After months of such fruitless urgings, Mrs. Boyle and four other employees complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that the tests were not being conducted. When they learned that OSHA had no jurisdiction over such matters, they complained to the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They told Mr. Baker what they had done and again he was aggravated. Then Mrs. Boyle told Mr. Baker that she would perform the required eyeglass lens hardening and testing.

Mr. Baker asked Mrs. Boyle and another employee, Bob Bond, to withdraw the complaints and to tell the FDA that they had lied. He also instructed other employees to throw broken glass into the bottom of the drop ball testing machine, apparently to give the FDA the false impression that drop ball testing was being done. A few weeks later, in November, 1978, OSHA conducted an investigation of defendants' premises.

About two months after the complaints to the FDA, on January 9, 1979, David Douglas, plaintiff's supervisor let plaintiff know that something was wrong. He told her that nothing was wrong with her production or work. He said that the problem was that she had reported to Mr. Baker, the president, that Douglas was using drugs. Mrs. Boyle asked Douglas to go with her to Mr. Baker to prove that she had not so accused him. Douglas refused and fired her on the spot. On cross-examination plaintiff quoted Douglas as saying the problem was not with her work but, "I am mad because you have turned me in on drugs to Mr. Baker." He then yelled, "You are fired. Get out." When she protested that she had not told Mr. Baker that he was using drugs, Douglas said, "Yes, you did. You are fired."

Plaintiff went immediately to Mr. Baker's office to protest. She told him what had happened and of Douglas' accusation of her. Baker said nothing--he just looked at the floor--when she challenged him, asserting that he knew Douglas was not telling the truth. She asked Baker if the reason she was being fired was that she had gone to the federal agencies, but Baker, she testified, just stood there and said nothing.

Defendant Baker on direct examination testified that Mrs. Boyle came "roaring in" to his office on January 9 and said that Douglas had fired her for arguing with him. He had no choice but to "go along." On cross-examination, however, Baker conceded that plaintiff "was a good worker" who to his knowledge did her work satisfactorily. Baker admitted that plaintiff had told him that Douglas had fired her "because he says that I told you [Baker] that David Douglas was on drugs." Baker testified, nevertheless, that this was the first time the subject of drug abuse had been mentioned to him. Despite that, he declined to call Douglas in about the false accusation on the basis of which he had just fired plaintiff. He testified that he just "had to let her go," that as management he had to stand behind his supervisor.

Plaintiff testified that the next day she reported to the Division of Employment Security that she was fired for accusing her supervisor of doing drugs, but that she had always believed that the true reason was that she had made the complaints about defendants' failure to harden and test the lenses.

On January 20, 1979, Bob Bond, a co-worker who had filed the complaints with plaintiff, was fired for "absenteeism." In due time, Mrs. Boyle made a written request to David Baker and Vista for a service letter stating the true reason for her discharge. In his answer, Mr. Baker wrote that the reason for her discharge was her arguing with her departmental supervisor.

Thereafter, Mrs. Boyle filed her petition for unpaid overtime compensation (Count I) and for damages for failure to issue a service letter that correctly stated the true reason for her discharge (Count II). She alleged that she was fired for the complaints made to OSHA and the FDA and not, as defendants stated in their service letter, for arguing with her supervisor. Later she added Count III alleging that she was wrongfully discharged from her employment for filing complaints with OSHA and FDA.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Count III on the ground that she was an at-will employee and that Missouri law does not recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge of such an employee absent a contract of employment or statutory authority. Defendants further alleged that the Missouri courts were without subject matter jurisdiction to try causes asserting violations of OSHA and FDA. The trial court granted defendants' motion and dismissed Count III for failure to state a claim.

Counts I and II were tried to a jury. It found in favor of plaintiff's overtime claim and awarded her $1,500. The jury also found that the failure to pay overtime wages was willful and not in good faith and awarded plaintiff additional liquidated damages in the amount of $1,500 and $750 for reasonable attorneys' fees. The jury found in favor of Mrs. Boyle on her service letter claim and awarded her $1.00 in actual damages and $15,000 in punitive damages.

Both parties appealed.

On appeal, defendants Vista and Baker present three points: First, that in submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury the trial court erred because the amendment to § 290.140 enacted August 13, 1982, is retroactive in application and bars plaintiff's recovery of punitive damages. Second, that in denying their motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial, the court erred in that plaintiff failed to present substantial evidence that the service letter falsely stated the reason for her discharge. Finally, that in denying Vista's motion for a mistrial the trial court erred because plaintiff's evidence went beyond the scope of the limitations requested by Vista in its motion in limine.

On her cross-appeal, Mrs. Boyle asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing Count III of her petition for failure to state a cause of action.

Inasmuch as Vista challenges the submissibility of the case on Count II of the petition, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept such evidence as true, giving the plaintiff the benefit of all favorable inferences reasonably to be drawn from the evidence and disregarding the defendant's evidence except insofar as it aids the plaintiff's case. Wells v. Orthwein, 670 S.W.2d 529, 532 (Mo.App.1984).

I. Punitive Damages

Defendant's first point is that the trial court erred in submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury in that the amendment to Missouri's service letter statute, § 290.140, 1 is retroactive in its...

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