Politics & Government

Judge opens door for new trial over damages in whistleblower case

Former Charlotte fire investigator Crystal Eschert was awarded $1.5 million by a jury in May.
Former Charlotte fire investigator Crystal Eschert was awarded $1.5 million by a jury in May. Steve Harrison/sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

U.S. Chief Judge Frank Whitney upheld the verdict in the Crystal Eschert whistleblower case Wednesday, but he allowed for the possibility of a new trial to determine damages.

Jurors in May awarded Eschert $1.5 million after they found the city of Charlotte retaliated against her for complaining about the safety of renovations at a building that would house fire investigators. At the time, Eschert worked for the Fire Department before being fired in late 2014.

The city has contended that the jury’s verdict was wrong. Whitney did not overturn the verdict.

But he said the way the jury awarded damages was problematic. The jury gave Eschert exactly what she asked for – $1.5 million – but jurors divided the money into four different allocations of money.

The city contended that the way the jury awarded the money meant Eschert was essentially “double collecting” money.

When the verdict and damages were read in March, Whitney realized there could be a problem. But rather than send the jury back with detailed instructions on how to award the money, Whitney dismissed them.

Eschert can decline a new trial and accept $464,538. Whitney may also award her attorney fees, which are more than $600,000. And the judge may triple that $464,538 under a state law designed to protect whistleblowers.

If Eschert requests a new trial, she could receive $1.5 million or even more, if the jury awards her more money.

Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, said she doesn’t know what her client will do. They have a week to decide.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs