Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that wrongfully terminated whistleblowers can recover non-economic damages. Bailets v. Pa. Tpk. Comm’n., 2018 Pa. LEXIS 1498 (2018). Bailets centered around a whistleblower claim made by a manager of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) alleging that they fired him in retaliation for reporting wrongdoings and waste to his supervisors. The lower court found in Plaintiff’s favor and awarded economic and noneconomic damages totaling over $3 million. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision and award of economic and non-economic damages.
This issue centered on whether the term “actual damages” in Section 125 of the Whistleblower Law should be narrowly or broadly interpreted to include non-economic damages. PTC argued that actual damages refer solely to economic damages because allowance of non-economic damages would be analogous to punitive damages. PTC also argued that exceptions to the Commonwealth’s immunity should be narrowly interpreted and thus non-economic damages should not be read into “actual damages.” The employee argued that actual damages include non-economic damages because the law’s purpose is remedial and serves to compel government compliance to the law. In addition, the employee argued that there is a long precedent in Pennsylvania that actual damages are equivalent to economic and non-economic damages. Furthermore, the employee argues that not awarding non-economic damages “would undermine the very purpose of the law to protect and encourage employee reporters of waste and wrongdoing.”
The Court approached this as an issue of statutory interpretation and held that the law must be liberally construed to allow non-economic damages, thus fulfilling the remedial purpose of the Whistleblower Law. Furthermore, the Court found that reading “actual damages” as solely economic damages would be superfluous considering the statute’s inclusion of different types of economic damages under the allowed types of recovery. The Court agreed with the employee that Pennsylvania’s precedence historically supports the finding that actual damages includes non-economic damages. The Court stressed that the state must allow recovery for non-economic harms such as humiliation, embarrassment, and mental anguish in order to make Plaintiff whole. Going forward, Bailets is significant in that it will open the door for more claims under the Whistleblower Law and allow for a greater recovery for successful claimants.