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Connecticut’s whistleblower doctrine provides that employees can sue for wrongful discharge if they show their terminations violated state or federal public policy. Established in Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Foods, the 1980 state supreme court ruling has been used to protect workers who report fraud or other criminal acts in the workplace. One such case, Kennedy and Hadden v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., was scheduled to go to trial on May 20 in U.S. District Court in Waterbury. The case was shifted from state to federal court on a defense motion. John Kennedy of Coventry was a maintenance mechanic at East Hartford’s Coca-Cola bottling plant. The plant employs more than 500 workers and is one of the town’s top taxpayers. It supplies soft drink products to most of New England, as well as much of New York state and northern New Jersey. Kennedy claimed to have discovered a cabal of workers and managers who abused drugs and alcohol on the job, then covered up tainted shipments of Coke to upstate New York. When Kennedy reported this to his supervisors, he said the production manager told him, “We would have to fire one-half of the plant employees to address that.” Defects in Coke included bits of charcoal, detergent and other cleaning agents, according to Kennedy. He said that in one instance 4,000 such cases were shipped to upstate New York. “There’s less inspectors up there, so you ship it up there to get rid of it,” Kennedy claims the production manager told him. On Oct. 14, 1997, Kennedy said he told the plant manager about drug use, sabotage and retaliation against anyone who reported problems. The next day, the brakes on his truck failed and he crashed into a tree and broke his neck. East Hartford police determined the brake lines were cut, but could not say for certain when that happened. They speculated the brake lines were cut after the accident. Coca-Cola denies any responsibility for cut brake lines or drug use, and denies the allegations in the complaint, said attorney John Bode of Chattanooga, Tenn., counsel for the soft drink giant. Documents provided by Kennedy’s attorney, Robert Heagney of East Hartford’s Gilman & Marks, indicate that the Coca-Cola plant employed a convicted drug dealer as a forklift operator. The forklift operator, given the moniker “Crack Baby” by management, also operated a bottling process machine which he would damage regularly, Heagney said. He said top bosses called this worker, “Our valuable employee the drug dealer.” Other workers claimed that managers tried to extort money from them for drugs, and informed suspected dealers and users of allegations against them. Among the claims of retaliation: Tools were destroyed, sensors tampered with, wires were cut on an encoder and cases of soda or tools would fall from above near workers who reported problems. A production supervisor who left the company said workers and managers asked him if police had any evidence about who cut Kennedy’s brake lines. Kennedy was fired and then denied long term disability. “We are convinced the brake lines were cut at his place of work by his co-workers,” Heagney said. The criminal investigation stalled after bouncing back and forth between East Hartford and state police. In a letter to another lawyer who tried to press the criminal investigation on Kennedy’s behalf, state police Major John Rearick said: “Your concern that the East Hartford police did not do a thorough job investigating, due to friendships of officers and suspects, should be referred to the East Hartford Police Chief … normally we do not conduct investigations in a local police jurisdiction unless requested to by the State’s Attorney or local police.”

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