Air Cargo Carrier Ordered to Pay $7.9 Million+ in Whistleblower Lawsuit

OSHA has ordered Southern Air Inc., a Norwalk, Conn.-based air cargo carrier, to withdraw a lawsuit it filed against nine former employees and pay them more than $7.9 million in wages, damages, and legal fees.

Southern Air filed a defamation lawsuit against the former employees in Connecticut Superior Court in May 2008 after some of the workers raised air carrier safety concerns with Southern Air, OSHA, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The workers, all former flight crew members, subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. The agency's subsequent investigation found that the company's lawsuit was filed in retaliation for the workers' protected activities under the whistleblower provisions of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21).

"This order sends a strong and clear message that these and other workers have the right to raise safety issues with their employers and regulatory agencies without fear of retaliation and intimidation," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "The Labor Department will vigorously investigate such allegations and, where merited, order appropriate remedies for workers."

As a result of its investigation, OSHA issued a notice of findings and order to Southern Air directing the airline to withdraw its lawsuit; pay the complainants $6,004,000 in lost future earnings, $1,800,000 in compensatory damages, and $129,789 in legal fees and costs; purge each complainant's personnel file and other records of all warnings, reprimands, or derogatory references resulting from protected whistleblower activity; refrain from mentioning the complainants' protected whistleblower activity or conveying any damaging information in response to third party inquiries; and provide all Southern Air crew members with copies of the FAA Whistleblower Protection Program poster and OSHA's notice to employees, and post these in each Southern Air facility.

The complainants and the airline have 30 days from receipt of the findings to file an appeal with the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges. In addition to AIR21, OSHA administers the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, public transportation, and consumer product safety laws.

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