Idaho News

Idaho Supreme Court: Judge erred in reducing $1.5M award in state whistleblower case

ISP whistleblower Brandon Eller during trial Monday at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise. He claims the Idaho State Police retaliated against him after he raised concerns about the investigation of a fatal crash involving an Idaho sheriff’s deputy.
ISP whistleblower Brandon Eller during trial Monday at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise. He claims the Idaho State Police retaliated against him after he raised concerns about the investigation of a fatal crash involving an Idaho sheriff’s deputy. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that an Ada County judge erred in reducing a jury’s award of $1.5 million to an Idaho State Police investigator in a whistleblower lawsuit.

The judge reduced the award to $1 million because state tort claim law caps judgments against public agencies at $500,000 per occurrence or accident.

In its unanimous May 24 opinion, the Idaho Supreme Court held that the state’s whistleblower statute trumps its tort claim statute. There is no cap on whistleblower claims in Idaho.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to Ada County court “for a partial new trial regarding non-economic damages solely under the Whistleblower Act.”

The ruling stems from a 2015 lawsuit in which Idaho State Police crash investigator Brandon Eller claimed that ISP retaliated against him because he testified against another officer in a court hearing. He said the agency also retaliated because he objected to its policy requiring crash investigators to destroy all but the final drafts of their investigation reports.

Following a nine-day trial in August 2017, a jury awarded Eller $30,528.97 in lost wages and $1.5 million in non-economic damages for his claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Both Eller and ISP appealed to the state’s highest court.

“This is a huge victory for all Idaho government employees,” Eller’s attorney, Erika Birch, told the Statesman. “This case establishes that all whistleblowers are entitled to seek uncapped emotional distress damages.”

Eller still works for ISP. The ruling is not the end of the court process for Eller, who would rather focus on his work at the police agency than a new trial, Birch said.

“He can, however, be very proud that his name will be on a Supreme Court case that will help all whistleblowers in our state,” Birch said. “Our hope is that Idaho government agencies will start taking their responsibilities seriously, as Idaho juries have shown that they are willing to hold them accountable when they don’t.”

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.
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