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Whistle-Blower Wins Suit Over Firing, Test Data

October 29, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

A jury awarded $107,000 Wednesday to a former Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp. employee who was fired after complaining about working conditions and falsification of test results on the Army's ill-fated Sgt. York anti-aircraft tank.

Jeanette Shurtleff, who drove the experimental tank in tests, said she had been wrongfully terminated after being subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination on the job at Ford's San Juan Capistrano facility.

"That's enough to get me on my feet," Shurtleff beamed after the verdict. "That's more money than I've ever had in my life."

Ford lawyer Cynthia Garrett, who had argued that Shurtleff's problems had been with co-workers, not supervisors, said an appeal is likely. Ford had maintained that the company thoroughly investigated Shurtleff's complaints and found them groundless.

Project Was Canceled

Shurtleff was awarded $7,233 in lost wages and $100,000 in punitive damages, which are designed to punish Ford for its wrongdoing.

Jurors were restricted in the amount they could award for lost wages because one month after Shurtleff was fired in 1985, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger canceled the Sgt. York project. Several thousands workers were laid off as a result.

"We felt they (Ford managers) were wrong," said jury foreman Albert Mayes, 28, a warehouseman from Orange. "The supervisors didn't know how to supervise. They didn't know what was going on, so they just blew it (her complaints) off."

Mayes said that the amount of the award was a compromise and that one juror wanted to return a $1.5-million verdict against Ford.

Jurors also believed Shurtleff's supervi sors ignored her disclosures that test results had been falsified to make it appear that the tank was working properly, Mayes said.

The 2 1/2-week trial was held before Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood.

Shurtleff, 35, of Lake Elsinore was hired as a laboratory technician for the defense contractor, based in Newport Beach. She transferred in 1984 to the south county test facility, where she became one of Ford's first women test drivers for tanks.

'Indignities and Harassments'

The $1.8-billion Sgt. York system was designed to provide air defense for the Army. Each weapon consisted of two cannons mounted on the chassis of an M-48 tank and was equipped with the same radar system as the F-16 fighter plane.

But the laser range-finders and computer-controlled guidance system never worked adequately as a defense against helicopters and fighter planes flying close air support.

After Shurtleff complained to Ford superiors that co-workers had falsified test data on the Sgt. York or given misleading interpretations, she was subjected to "a terrible series of indignities and harassments," according to Richard N. Grey, her attorney.

Other co-workers of equal ability and performance received raises while she did not, according to the lawsuit, and her locker was vandalized and personal belongings were destroyed.

A succession of poor assignments and verbal harassment followed. Shurtleff alleged that her supervisor made fun of her walk and the way she talked. Personnel officials "pressured" her to accept a demotion and transfer, according to the lawsuit.

Finally, in July, 1985, Shurtleff refused an assignment that would have involved working with an employee who she alleged had falsified test results. She was suspended and then fired for what Ford termed "the good of the company."

Shurtleff has collected $15,000 in workers compensation for claims involving stress.

After the verdict Wednesday, Shurtleff mingled with jurors, who congratulated her on the victory and commiserated with her about her treatment.

'No One Would Believe'

She said that after complaining so much and getting no response, at one point she began to wonder whether she was imagining it.

"I began to question my own integrity," Shurtleff said.

The verdict was double vindication, because of the money and the finding that Ford acted maliciously, Shurtleff said.

"No matter what she did--no matter what she said--no one (in management) would believe her," Grey said.

Through it all, Mayes said, it appeared that Ford supervisors never really tried to investigate her claims.

"They never asked her side of it," Mayes said. "The company never gave her a fair shake."

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