The Minnesota Court of Appeals has overturned a $340,000 jury verdict in a whistleblower suit by a fired quality-assurance manager for Minneapolis-based Microtron Inc., an electronics supplier to the automotive industry.
The three-judge panel unanimously rejected a claim that Microtron illegally fired Michael Obst in retaliation for his complaints about the company's failure to follow Ford Motor Co.'s control plan for testing windshield wiper control modules.
The dispute arose from problems Microtron encountered in testing and manufacturing the modules, including frequent breakdowns in its end-of-the-line tester and design modifications that made it more difficult to solder components onto circuit boards without causing bridging or a short circuit.
One result was an increase in the number of wiper control module failures reported by Ford plants in early 1995.
Obst contended that the company failed to follow his recommendation to notify Ford immediately about the malfunctioning end-of-the-line tester, waiting a month to do so. Microtron, of Minneapolis, said it told Ford within a few days and that Ford approved its proposal to use a durability tester instead.
'Ford knew all about this,' said Microtron lawyer Eric Magnuson of Minneapolis. 'The only question at trial was how soon they knew.'
After Obst was fired in June 1995, he sued, saying he was fired for telling Vice President and General Manager Keith Horton that the company was not complying with Ford's control plan and because he insisted Microtron inform Ford about events leading up to the quality problems. He never complained to Ford or to any government agency, lawyers for both sides said.
Microtron asserted that Obst was terminated for job performance and communication problems. Magnuson also said no defective components ever got to the end users because of Ford's own quality control program. Ford later increased its wiper control module orders by dropping a Brazilian supplier and reassigning the work to Microtron, he noted.
At trial, a Hennepin County District Court jury ordered the company and Horton to pay damages.
The Court of Appeals threw out the verdict, saying the situation was not covered by the Minnesota whistleblower protection law because it did not involve a suspected violation of a law or government regulation.
Judge Robert Shumaker said there would have been no violation even if Microtron had failed to follow Ford's manufacturing control plan or to notify Ford in advance of the alternative testing procedure.
'The testing at issue here was not governed by the federal standards which address the required frequencies or speed of the wipers and the area of the windshield to be wiped,' the court said. 'Further, Obst's reports (to Horton) continued even after Ford had been made aware of and accepted the substitute testing.'