In 2013, seven employees of a Louisville cable company, Charter Communications, were fired for violating company policy. It was unfair and based on a misunderstanding. Shortly afterward at a Charter employee conference, however, a company speaker implied that the fired workers were thieves. Also, the company failed to respond to an anonymous internal ethics complaint about the presentation at the conference.
The situation arose when an administrative assistant was told to get rid of some Hewlett-Packard printers she had obtained using reward points because Charter had signed an exclusive contract with Xerox. The administrative assistant, who was in charge of managing office supplies, gave the 26 printers to several employees. This turned out to be a violation of company policy.
Although a human resources investigation determined that at least some of the employees had reasonably believed the administrative assistant had the authority to give away these printers, some of the employees were recommended for termination. Even though HR did not recommend that every printer recipient be fired, the corporate office insisted that these seven had to go.
It wasn’t until a month later that the defamation occurred. A speaker at an employee conference referred to the incident as “printergate” and referred to the fired employees as “people we know and love who made bad choices.” This was stated in connection with a discussion about “Operation Greenlight,” which involved embezzlement, and “Operation Buzzkill,” which involved drug use and trafficking. The implication was that the plaintiffs made bad choices equivalent to those targeted in those operations. Another speaker mentioned Pete Rose and OJ Simpson as other people who had made bad choices.
The implication of wrongdoing was obvious enough that an employee at the conference filed an ethics complaint and alleged that the presentation violated company policy. Charter took no action on that complaint. In addition, the plaintiffs say, contact with their former colleagues essentially dried up after the conference.
In the defamation lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought damages to compensate them for their embarrassment, humiliation, and mental anguish. They also sought punitive damages, which are meant to punish defendants for their misbehavior.
After a five-day trial, a jury deliberated for three hours and returned a verdict for the plaintiffs. Each of the seven former employees were awarded $350,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punative damages.