It was undisputed during the jury trial that Jeanette Ortiz was a loyal and hardworking Chipotle employee of 14 years. During her time with the company, she received outstanding performance reviews, and was a valued employee through four pregnancies and four Workers’ Compensation claims. She made a respectable salary of $70,000 a year as a General Manager, and was in talks about getting a promotion that would have paid her $100,000 a year. But things went south and the relationship soured when she was accused of stealing cash from the safe on December 29, 2014. During the trial, three Chipotle employees claimed to have seen the surveillance footage, but an Assistant Manager’s testimony contradicted their accounts. He claims that he saw the cash in an envelope on December 30, 2014—a full day after the others claimed they saw her taking the money on video.
During this time period in late 2014, Ortiz was working through work-related carpal tunnel syndrome, and had already filed a Workers’ Compensation claim. Following the accusation of theft, on January 18, 2015, Ortiz’ carpal tunnel syndrome worsened, forcing her to go out on medical leave. During that time is when Chipotle decided to terminate her for the alleged theft. After Ortiz filed a California labor lawsuit, the jury found that Chipotle had concocted the theft story to terminate her for filing the Workers’ Compensation claim. In the eyes of the jury, the alleged theft had never occurred, but was likely a pretext to terminate her for inadvertently raising the companies Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums.
California Labor Employment Law and Punitive Damages
Usually cases settle prior to verdict, to avoid the uncertainty of trial. Although some cases settle even after a jury verdict to avoid the costs of an appeal, in general, it is unusual. In this case, it could indicate that Chipotle was not expecting the jury to be so pro-employee and to buy into Ortiz’s account of a retaliatory pretext. This case, with it’s large jury verdict, could send a message to other California employers and serve to help leverage larger settlements on behalf of wrongfully terminated employees in California.
Generally speaking, when a Plaintiff prevails in a civil lawsuit, they are entitled to compensatory damages—damages that exist to make them “whole again,” as if the alleged incident that caused them some type of harm had never occurred. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are damages that a court may order to punish a Defendant for egregious conduct. They are intentionally very high in order to deter similar conduct in the future. In the employment litigation context, there typically needs to be proof that the employer had knowledge of the egregious conduct, and approved of it or did nothing to stop it from happening. California labor code (California Civil Code Section 3294) provides that wrongful termination of employment claims can warrant an award of punitive damages.