by Gwen Moritz
Posted 1/9/2012 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
I was almost resigned to having to write something about my resolutions for 2012 (lose weight, be nicer, double-check before clicking "reply to all") or about the Iowa caucuses, when suddenly on Wednesday there was columnist manna from heaven: David Coombs v. J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., Rich Allensworth and Mark Emerson.
That's the name (what the lawyers call the "style") of a civil lawsuit first filed in Benton County in 2008. Last week, the Arkansas Court of Appeals sent it back to the circuit court judge who dismissed all of Coombs' complaints against his former employer, J.B. Hunt, and the two doofuses he worked for there, Allensworth and Emerson.
I don't know any of these people, but I feel confident that Allensworth and Emerson are doofuses based entirely on the parts of Coombs' story that they admit.
Coombs himself was none too brilliant, having gotten so drunk during a company-sponsored "team-building" retreat in Kansas City in May 2007 that he first relieved himself in a wooded area beside a parking lot then fell asleep on the floor of the hotel room that he shared with his supervisor Allensworth.
Lesson One for the kiddies: Getting drunk at a company function is never a good idea. Never. Not even if your supervisor may seem to condone or even encourage overindulgence.
Coombs' behavior, however juvenile, pales in comparison to what Allensworth and Emerson did. Allensworth, with Emerson in tow, returned to his hotel room, and they found Coombs on the floor and began to amuse themselves at the drunk man's expense.
There's considerable disagreement as to Coombs' state of undress when his supervisors found him. He says he had removed only his shoes; they say he had stripped to his underwear. But this much is settled: He woke up the next morning naked in bed.
In between, Allensworth and Emerson had written on his body with ink ("help me" was written on his leg), covered him with shaving cream, stuck a cigarette in his mouth and taken pictures of him with their cellphones. But these guys weren't just cruel. Demonstrating what I like to call SKOS - a special kind of stupid - they also invited other co-workers into the room to see the spectacle, some of whom took pity on Coombs and tried to clean him up.
Coombs didn't remember any of it when he woke up, but Emerson showed him the photos - which he also showed to Coombs' co-workers.
What happens in Kansas City stays in Kansas City, of course. Allensworth and Emerson told everyone who participated in the retreat to keep quiet. But a few months later, another employee wrote a memo about the incident to a higher-up, and the thing blew up.
Lesson Two: A conspiracy of silence is difficult to maintain in the first place, and you are dreaming if you think no one will tell on managers who behave like frat boys.
After an internal investigation, Allensworth was fired and Emerson and Coombs were reprimanded. And that looked to be the end of it, until Coombs' salary was cut from $106,000 to $75,000. The appeals court didn't even attempt to determine whether that was a direct result of Coombs' behavior in KC - other salaries were being cut at the same time - but it apparently encouraged Coombs to quit J.B. Hunt and start his own business in the spring of 2008.
That's when J.B. Hunt tried to enforce a noncompete agreement by filing suit against Coombs in Benton County Circuit Court. Coombs fought back, filing a counterclaim charging the company, Allensworth and Emerson with, among other things, invasion of privacy, vicarious liability and outrage. J.B. Hunt's effort to enforce the noncompete was dismissed, and so were all of Coombs' complaints.
While the appeals court agreed that the incident didn't rise to the level of outrage, Judge Cliff Hoofman suggested that a jury might well agree that inviting numerous co-workers to gawk at Coombs in his hotel room was an invasion of privacy. What's more, a jury might also agree that J.B. Hunt had some liability because Allensworth and Emerson were "on the job" when they pulled their stunt. The appeals court sent those questions back to the circuit court.
Lesson Three: Noncompetes are really hard to enforce in the first place, and it was especially dumb to try it on a guy with a story like Coombs' to tell.
(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)