On Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court extended the state’s whistleblower law to include employees whose job requires them to identify health and safety risks.
In a unanimous vote, the court largely affirmed an appeals court ruling that the law also covers whistleblower employees. Legal advocates kept a close eye on the case, arguing that a lack of protection from employee retaliation would keep tipsters from speaking out, according to NJSpotlight.com.
Upon reviewing the language of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), the court rejected arguments that the law should not cover employees tasked with uncovering workplace hazards and problems with a manufacturer’s products. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in a 38-page ruling obtained by NJSpotlight.com: “There is simply no support in CEPA’s definition of ‘employee’ to restrict the Act’s application and preclude its protection of watchdog employees.”
The case involved Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Ethicon unit and a doctor who was responsible for providing medical opinions about the safety of Ethicon’s pharmaceutical products used for surgical procedures. On several occasions, the whistleblowers objected to the proposed or continual sale and distribution of Ethicon’s medical products, and urged that they should be kept from the market, recalled, or undergo further study, NJSpotlight.com reports.
The tipster recommended a recall of a product in April 2006 and was fired the next month. The company said he had been dismissed from his job over an inappropriate relationship with someone in a different department that he had authority over. He then filed a lawsuit, according to NJSpotlight.com
The tipster’s lawsuit had been dismissed by a lower court, but a state appeals panel later overruled that decision. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court’s ruling, except it also ruled that tipster employees are not required to demonstrate that they exhaustively pursued all internal complaint processes prior to filing a whistleblower lawsuit, NJSpotlight.com reports.
“This ruling dramatically increases the probability that whistleblower claims may be brought against New Jersey business,’’ said Michele Sierkerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.