San Bernardino County
May 7, 1987
Jury awards fired salesman $17 million
by Richard Brooks
Sun Staff Writer
SAN BERNARDINO -- A salesman won a $17 million jury verdict Wednesday against a mining firm he says fired him unjustly from his $45,000-a-year job.
Norman Collett's lawyer argued that Pluess-Stauffer corporation should be punished for being so arrogant that it refused two court orders to reveal financial information.
The expression on Collett's face changed to relief, then to joyous shock and, finally, to absolute elation as he listened to the jury's four separate awards that make up the $17 million, a courtroom observer said.
Collett worked for the firm's Lucerne Valley limestone mine for 3 1/2 years until he was fired in April 1983. During that time, his annual salary rose from $28,000 to $45,000.
The salesman claims he was fired for:
--Refusing to lie to help his company win a lawsuit.
--Refusing to report his customers' trade secrets.
--Arguing that a newly developed product contained too much lead to win Food and Drug Administration approval -- and for refusing to find a testing laboratory that would overlook the problem.
--Objecting to what he said was an illegal price-fixing scheme.
Pluess-Stauffer officials flatly denied those charges.
They say Collett was fired because there wasn't enough business to justify three salesman -- and because he was the least productive of the three. He hasn't been replaced, they say.
The firm will appeal the jury's verdict, its attorney said. The company also wants permission to postpone making any payments to Collett until after the appeal. Superior Court Judge Michael Smith decided that May 26 will be the deadline for filing those requests.
Wednesday's windfall ended a four-week trial. The jury took 1 1/2 days to reach its decision.
Collett claimed that his firing has cost him more than $400,000 in salary and benefits.
Two judges ordered Pluess-Staffer to reveal corporate financial information so the jury could consider the numbers if it decided to punish the firm.
Instead, the Swiss-based parent company sent a Telex message to the court, saying the head of the corporation was too busy to fly to the U.S. to testify, but that his firm had the financial ability to pay whatever judgment the jury might impose.
Attorney Jonathan Biddle argued on Collett's behalf that the firm should be punished for its arrogance, because the company never supplied the information outlined in the court orders.
Biddle urged that the firm be ordered to pay Collett more than $400,000 in lost earnings and more than $800,000 for emotional distress.
He also asked the jury to punish the firm by ordering the parent company to fork over about $14 million and its California subsidiary to ante up about $2 million.
In general, the jury granted those requests.
It even ordered Collett's former boss -- Kurt Enderli -- to pay $200,000 out of his own pocket.
Enderili, president of the firm's California subsidiary, is the man who did the firing.