Jury finds man was wrongfully fired.

Robert Albright said Friday he can finally hold his head up and no longer be embarrassed about what happened 10 years ago when Caterpillar Inc. fired him.


Time heals all wounds, and so does a jury awarding him $1.7 million for being wrongfully fired a decade ago.


"I had to tell (family and friends) about being fired after 39 years," said the 66-year-old retiree. "The fact that we had 12 jurors who voted 12 to nothing for me really says something."


Jurors deliberated for about three hours Thursday before finding Caterpillar erred when it fired Albright, a 39-year employee at the time, several months after he was hurt on the job and tried to collect worker’s compensation benefits.


Specifically, the jury awarded him $480,000 in lost wages and benefits, $480,000 for damages to his reputation and $800,000 in punitive damages.


"As far as I am concerned, one of the major points of this case is that no one should have to chose between their job and seeking worker’s compensation benefits to which they are entitled. That was an important message for this jury to send," said Athena Herman, who tried the case with her partner Patricia Benassi.


In a statement, Caterpillar officials said it was disappointed with the verdict and will evaluate its next steps.


Albright was a manager with Caterpillar and was responsible for buying parts for various machinery used by the company, Benassi said.


In early 1997, he fell down a flight of steel stairs and hurt his back, legs, arm and shoulder.


After some time off, he came back to work part-time. That summer, a doctor employed by Caterpillar gave him medication which helped him move around better. Benassi said the doctor had told her client he could go swimming or play golf. The idea was to get him up and moving around.


Almost immediately, Caterpillar assigned someone to follow him around and videotape his movements, according to testimony at trial. Seventeen days later, he was fired after being filmed planting a small tree with his wife and playing golf. Additionally, the company cut off his worker’s compensation benefits after he was fired.


During the trial, a Caterpillar executive defended the firm’s actions, saying Albright had acted dishonestly. When asked by Benassi whether they did any investigation, the manager said no, that Albright’s dishonesty was enough.


Herman and Benassi see it differently. The two attorneys noted at trial the company never investigated Albright, who had received favorable recommendations throughout his tenure.


"He had a perfect employment record,’ Benassi said. "They fired him to send a message to all those other Caterpillar people — not to file their worker’s comp benefits."


Albright says he realizes Caterpillar could appeal.


He doesn’t want to spend money he hasn’t received, but he does want to travel a bit more of with Barbara, his wife of 30 years.


"At 67, you don’t make too many plans," he said.

Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 or akravetz@pjstar.com.