Emotional Distress Damages Allowed in Wrongful Discharge Suit

While North Carolina follows the employment at will doctrine, North Carolina courts recognize specific exceptions to that doctrine based upon a violation of public policy. If an employer terminates an employee for reasons that violate a specific expression of state public policy, the plaintiff may pursue a wrongful discharge claim to remedy the personal injury suffered. Very recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals analyzed the kinds of damages that a jury may award in a successful wrongful discharge action.

In the case of Blakely v. Town of Taylortown, the former Chief of Police of Taylortown, NC filed a wrongful discharge action, claiming that the Town terminated his employment because he refused to disclose to Town Council members the identities of confidential police informants. In addition to back wages and other economic damages, the jury awarded Mr. Blakely damages for emotional distress and for future lost wages. The defendant appealed, claiming that these types of damages are not available under the state’s common law of wrongful discharge.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Town and affirmed, with slight reduction, the award of damages. The court refused to impose a standard that would force the plaintiff to demonstrate severe emotional damages in order to recover for emotional distress.

Previously a gray area in North Carolina employment law, the Court of Appeals has expressed through this case its apparent intention to treat wrongful discharge in the same manner as other personal injury torts.

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