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Two weeks after Axiom Laboratories hired Thomas Lee away from a $36,000 water treatment job, company president William Mackey concluded he’d made a terrible mistake, and fired him. But that action has lead to a court ruling which now may affect personal liability issues for business owners across Connecticut. Crushed after being let go in 1989, Lee turned to Hartford, Conn., employment solo Jamie L. Mills to see if he had a wrongful discharge case. Mills listened carefully to Lee’s tale of broken promises. In July 1989, when first invited to consider the Axiom job, Lee was 58 and worried about job security. He wanted a four-year contract. Mackey declined to give him one, but assured Lee that as long as he did his job, he’d have a job. Mackey knew that Lee had worked for almost 30 years for Axiom’s predecessor company in Bloomfield, and hoped Lee’s return would help the company win back former customers. Lee remembered Mackey saying he would be given three to four months to get his feet under him in the new job, and that he could freely tell Mackey his feelings about the business and operations. Lee was hired, and worked for seven days between Sept 1 and Sept 15 1989, when Mackey fired him because he appeared to lack initiative. Lee had never been given a written contract to supplant the statements Mackey made in the August negotiations, but Lee had a witness — the company lab director — to corroborate what Mackey said. That talk, it turned out, was not cheap. On May 1, after a six-day trial before Hartford Superior Court Judge A. Susan Peck, the jury awarded Lee $300,000-the value of the pay, benefits and interest he would have accrued through age 65 and a half if he’d never left his previous job. Plaintiffs’ expert witness Sheldon Wishnick, a Newington actuary, provided the jury with alternate methods of calculating Lee’s losses, based either on his old salary or the new $55,000-a-year Axiom job. After less than three hours of deliberation, the jury concluded Mackey negligently misrepresented aspects of the new job to lure Lee away, and then fired him without just cause. It awarded $310,000 based on Lee’s old salary, subtracting $10,000 for his failure to reduce his damages by getting other work. And in the case’s most controversial twist, the jury found Mackey personally liable as well. He was not protected by his status as a corporate officer, on the theory that an individual is liable for his own torts, whether or not committed while acting on behalf of the corporation. Felix J. Springer, of Hartford-based Day, Berry & Howard, is defending Mackey and his company. Springer, in voluminous post-trial motions filed May 11, contends that if the result in Lee v. Axiom, is allowed to stand, it would be disastrous for Connecticut state businesses: “Given the ruling in this case, it will be difficult to find anyone to serve as a corporate officer in Connecticut in the absence of extraordinary guarantees of indemnity and insurance coverage.” Because such protection is costly, especially for small businesses, Springer contends this would “create disincentives to conducting business in corporate form in this state.” Mills counters that Springer’s protests are “fairly hysterical.” The status of being corporate officers doesn’t shield people from liability to others for their own tortious conduct, she said. But both Mills and Springer agree that no Connecticut appellate court has yet held a corporate officer personally liable for ordinary negligence or negligent misrepresentation while acting in a corporate capacity. The case is ripe for appellate scrutiny. TEAM EFFORT Mills wasn’t the lead trial lawyer for the case. She brought in Leonard Isaac, of Waterbury, Conn.’s Brennan & Isaac. He combines a trial practice of commercial litigation, personal injury and insurance coverage cases. He met Mills through an e-mail group for small firm lawyers who share expertise in different legal disciplines, gaining advantages available to members of big firms. Even before going up against him in court, Isaac had a healthy respect for Felix Springer, who heads the employment law group at Day, Berry & Howard, Connecticut’s largest firm. Day, Berry is where Isaac began his legal career, moving on after a year and a half to Waterbury’s Carmody & Torrance. In Springer’s motions to change the verdict or grant a new trial he contends the Lee proceeding was tainted with prejudicial evidence and misstatements of the law in jury instructions. Springer leaves no stone unturned, contending that Lee’s firing was justified, and that the jury was improperly led to award a sympathy verdict. Mackey’s statements were actually just opinions. Not capable of being judged true in any strict sense, Springer argued they can’t be the basis for a finding of negligent misrepresentation. Furthermore, in a case that hinged on credibility, Springer asserts it was improper for Judge Peck to exclude evidence of Lee’s failure to file income taxes for three years. Springer contended it had also been improper to allow testimony from Lee’s ex-wife, with whom he maintains a close relationship despite their marital split ten years ago. She testified to the emotional toll caused by Lee’s firing. Peck should not have allowed evidence of damage to Lee’s reputation, the defense argues, such as statements that Lee could not find work after his firing. “The jury’s verdict on damages clearly was corrupted by confusion, ignorance and partiality,” Springer argues, “in light of the evidence of emotional distress damages and reputation damage.” In his closing arguments at trial, Springer played to the theme of lawsuits being brought for lightweight transgressions. He invoked the image of jurors discussing the case at backyard barbecues, with people questioning “can you really sue for that?” In Isaac’s summation, he phrased the question differently. A promise is a promise, he argued. And the real question about the termination of Thomas Lee is “can they really get away with that?”

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