Raising ethical questions on the job is never easy, but it sure is the right thing to do when it involves the potential safety of our armed forces. Or so thought a conscientious Los Angeles jury, which has put the entire defense industry on notice that companies must allow their employees to raise product-safety questions without fear of losing their jobs.
The Calabasas-based Lockheed Corp. apparently didn't. So jurors sent their message through a verdict handed down in the case of three Lockheed employees who were fired in 1985 after raising questions about the C-5B cargo jets the company was building for the Air Force.
The three former employees, Clyde W. Jones Jr., Terrence F. Schielke and Thomas R. Benecke, sued the company for wrongful termination. They claimed they were sacked after they tried to warn management that the C-5B aircraft had problems.
In what is believed to be the highest punitive damages against a defense firm, the jury voted to award the trio $45.3 million. That will probably be reduced before all is said and done, but such a staggering amount reflects a good measure of public dissatisfaction with and distrust of the actions of not only Lockheed but the entire defense industry.
Early this year, Northrop Corp. pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it faked tests on a sensor system that helps stabilize the AV-8B Harrier jet used by the Marine Corps. Northrop paid a record fine, but that doesn't help the Marines now in Saudi Arabia, who are in desperate need of replacements for the sensors. Last year, the McDonnell Douglas Corp. plant in Long Beach got a very bad review from the Air Force on the quality of its work.
Lockheed has indicated it will seek to overturn or appeal the judgment, noting that neither the company's competence nor the airworthiness of the C-5B was on trial. The Air Force is currently using the cargo jets to transport troops to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield.
But clearly job security should not be the trade-off for raising, in good conscience, questions about the safety of any program, government or otherwise. Defense firms ought to be accountable for their actions to employees and taxpayers alike.
As juror Julio Barrious, put it, "We felt that if taxpayers pay for a product that we should get what we ask for and not something less. We felt that if we gave Lockheed a large (penalty), we would send out message, not only to Lockheed but (to) the defense industry."
That they did.