ABUSIVE DISCHARGE An important variation on the retaliation theme arises when no statute expressly prohibits retaliation, but when a significant, well-established public policy is involved. When a firing tends to undercut such a policy, courts may characterize the discharge as abusive or wrongful and allow the employee to recover damages against the employer despite an at-will employment relationship.
To illustrate, suppose an employee is instructed to make a delivery using the company truck. The employee points out that the truck’s safety inspection sticker has expired and that it is illegal to drive a truck with an expired sticker. In addition, brake repairs are needed for the truck to pass reinspection. The employer’s supervisor insists that the delivery be made anyway, and when the employee refuses, he is fired. Many states would view that as an abusive discharge, because it undercuts an important state highway safety policy.