The State Worker

Caltrans must pay $3 million after losing appeal in worker’s perfume allergy lawsuit

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Caltrans must abide by a jury’s decision to award $3 million to an employee who claimed his supervisors harassed him by ignoring his allergies to perfume and several cleaning products, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The ruling appears to leave Caltrans little room to keep fighting the award, which a Nevada County jury set in May 2017 after a one-month trial.

Employee John Barrie, 62, of Grass Valley, filed suit after supervisors repeatedly ignored directives to keep perfumes and cleaning chemicals like Windex and Comet away from him starting in 2010. He said his supervisor called him an “idiot” and a “jerk” and that after his desk was moved he would sometimes find his things soaked in perfume.

Caltrans contested the jury’s $3 million figure. A trial court judge sided with the department, ruling the award was “so excessive as to indicate that it was prompted by passion, prejudice, whim or caprice” on the part of the jury.

That judge determined that $350,000 would be fair and reasonable, according to court documents.

Barrie appealed the judge’s decision, saying the judge didn’t cite sufficient evidence for his decision. The Third Appellate District Court of Appeal agreed with him in its ruling Thursday directing Caltrans to pay him the full $3 million judgment.

“I am very pleased at the Third Appellate District Court’s unanimous ruling today,” Barrie said in an email. “This ruling is a major victory for disabled persons everywhere, including those with ‘invisible’ disabilities, such as heart disease, epilepsy, diabetes, and chemical sensitivities. This ruling sends a clear message to employers everywhere: honor the rights of the disabled and ensure they are accommodated.”

In an email, Caltrans spokeswoman Lindsey Hart said, “Since the ruling just came down today, we need time to evaluate any appropriate next steps.”

In addition to the $3 million, the appeal court ruled Caltrans has to pay Barrie about $44,000 in lost income, and it has to pay his attorneys’ fees for the appeal.

Zane Hilton, an attorney representing Barrie from the Bohm Law Group, declined to estimate what the bill might be for attorneys’ fees, saying only that “there are many, many hours invested in this case.”

Barrie currently works for Caltrans from home.

He started working for the department as a staff services analyst in 2005. In 2010, a new supervisor disregarded accommodations that Caltrans had been making for him, according to the legal complaint he filed in 2013.

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.