PWW Article - Limit Your Liability for Sexual Harassment Claims
The costs of sexual harassment can be very high. What are the financial costs? Attorneys fees to defend a case to trial can run from $50,000-$100,000 for one thing by the time it's all over. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, plaintiffs are now entitled to compensatory (“pain and suffering”) damages, punitive damages, in addition to back pay and front pay awards. Plus, the law requires that the employer pay the attorneys fees of the plaintiff if the plaintiff prevails at trial. Juries are also generally sympathetic to the plight of the aggrieved person, particularly if management did not have in place “the basics” to stop and prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Many state laws also prohibit sexual harassment in paid and volunteer organizations and provide remedies for aggrieved volunteers.
Many EMS organizations do not have adequate liability insurance protection to cover workplace liability issues, like discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination claims. In most cases, a special rider or separate policy on “employment practices liability” is required to obtain coverage for these claims. In our view, this is “must have” coverage for most EMS organizations. Service managers should check their insurance coverage now to see if your service has this protection.
In addition to the financial costs, there are many other tangible and soft cost such as time spent in investigations, fact finding, depositions, trial as well as emotional cost. Sexual harassment lawsuits are a significant emotional drain on the organization, its management and employees. In a nutshell, these cases often get ugly and reputations and feelings are often damage beyond repair as a result.
EMS organizations are at greater risk for the occurrence of sexual harassment than many other organizations for a variety of reasons---round the clock operations with little direct supervision, sharing of difficult and stressful situations as partners and coworkers, existence of sleeping facilities and close quarters---to name just a few. Another big area we see as a huge problem due to “unenlightened” management---managers and supervisors who do not understand the significance of these claims, no working policy in place, no management or supervisory training on prevention, and inadequate and haphazard response to complaints.
Fortunately, in many cases sexual harassment can be prevented and liability risk can be reduced. The law requires that you have in place a system to prevent and resolve complaints. Here are the essential five (5) “MUST HAVE” requirements necessary to minimize risk and reduce liability:
An enlightened leadership sensitive and committed to preventing workplace discrimination and harassment throughout the organization.
Policy. A well crafted “Policy Against Sexual and Other Harassment” that is oriented to the EMS environment. This policy must include examples of prohibited behavior, steps for reporting alleged harassment, and steps that will be taken when a complaint is made.
All staff should be oriented to the policy and trained upon entering the organization as part of orientation. Annual training of all staff and management is a must. Mangers and supervisors should be specially trained in how to identify harassment and in how to handle complaints effectively.
Immediate, prompt and thorough investigation is critical to avoiding liability. Complaints that sit on a supervisor’s desk for days or are minimized in importance WILL result in liability to your EMS organization if it can be shown that unlawful harassment actually took place.
Action to Stop and Prevent Harassment
Prompt action to stop the existing harassment and to prevent future harassment from occurring is essential. Appropriate discipline or action against staff members engaged in unlawful conduct is necessary. Note: This does not always mean that the perpetrator must be fired (though in some serious situations it may be necessary). Retraining, written warnings, and other action may work.
We have found that many EMS organizations lack these essential five points--- exposing the organization to significant, and needless, liability.
PWW attorneys have developed model policies and training programs that are tailored to the EMS environment. We are available to assist EMS organizations in implementing a preventive program, and to conduct on site training for management and staff. In this area of EMS Law, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure! CONTACT US for more information.
One of the greatest potential liability areas for the EMS organization is the risk of a sexual harassment lawsuit. These claims are not only costly for your service, but erode at morale and staff satisfaction. Most sexual harassment lawsuits are based on the claim that that an unlawful “hostile work environment” was created based on sex. This is most often due to offensive conduct by supervisors or coworkers--- physical or verbal---which interferes with the victim’s ability to do the job. There need not even be a tangible job detriment (like job loss) to the victim in order for a sexual harassment claim to be successful.