Deaf truck driver awarded $36M by a jury for discrimination
Lawyer: amount will likely be reduced to $300K because of statute.
A deaf man who says a truck driving company told him that they would not hire him because he couldn't hear won over $36 million in damages by a jury a month ago.
Victor Robinson, who is in his 40s and has lived his whole life deaf, told ABC News that Werner Enterprises trucking company passed him in their commercial driver's license (CDL) training program, but when he applied for a job in 2016, the company's Vice President of Safety and Compliance Jamie Hamm, who was Jamie Maus at the time, told him he wouldn't get the job.
"It was really intense," Robinson told ABC News through an interpreter. "The person said, 'We can't hire you because you can't hear,' and hung up [the video call]. And there it was. The end. And I got to the point where I didn't know what else to do."
Robinson eventually reached out to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They reviewed his case and decided to file a lawsuit against Werner.
"That fact has baffled us from the beginning," Josh Pierson, Robinson's lawyer, told ABC News. "The fact that Victor and other deaf drivers can complete training school, can get their CDL, even attend training schools owned by Werner but then aren't allowed to drive for the company, ultimately."
Pierson told ABC News that Werner violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities so they can perform the essential functions of their job.
Werner denies any wrongdoing.
"The company operates with the mantra that nothing we do is worth getting hurt or hurting others, whether that be its professional drivers, customers or the motoring public at large," Werner told ABC News, in part, through a statement. "Werner prides itself on fostering an inclusive workplace where our associates are encouraged to bring their full selves to work, including our valued associates who may have a disability."
According to Pierson, Werner thought Robinson was unfit to complete the company's test to evaluate new truck drivers, which requires communication between the driver and instructor. Werner could have easily accommodated Robinson by implementing hand gestures or flashcards for the driver and instructor to communicate," Pierson said.
According to Robinson, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) gave him a hearing exemption required of most truck drivers. It is common for the FMCSA to give exemptions to professionals with disabilities, such as diabetes, amputations, or hearing loss, Pierson said.
The jury awarded Robinson $75,000 in compensatory damages, and $36 million in punitive damages.
Pierson believes that Werner will file an appeal to the jury's decision, reducing the amount awarded to Robinson to $300,000 because of a statutory cap for punitive damages, which a corporation would pay under the ADA.
"The company is evaluating its options relative to an appeal of this jury's decision," Werner said in their statement.
Robinson told ABC News it was distressing to know that the damages awarded would most likely be reduced and believes that Congress should raise the cap amount in the ADA.
"Some people look at deaf people and think that they are lesser, think they have a disease," Robinson told ABC News. "We're literally regular people. We're not sick. We have skills. We have abilities. We think the same as other people. We literally just can't hear."
Robinson eventually acquired a truck driving job with another company and loves the career he has had for almost five years. He told ABC News that he has driven through nearly every state in the country, exploring the American landscape and its varied terrains of mountains, plains, rivers and valleys.
"People wonder how we can drive when we can't hear. I see people driving all the time with earbuds in and with their music on loud," Robinson told ABC News. "And that's certainly not any different. We depend on our eyes to drive. You do, I do. It's not about sound. It's more about being aware, visually. Our visual acuity is much better."