Walmart asks court to reconsider jury award to drivers in California

Walmart Inc. (NYSE:WMT) has asked a federal appeals court to reconsider an appellate panel’s ruling that awarded $54.6 million to a class of former California truck drivers for time spent mostly on 10-hour layovers between trips. The company said faulty guidance from a lower court influenced the award.

In a motion for the panel or the full court to rehear the case, Walmart’s attorneys said the jury was instructed to follow “narrow” language in the retailer’s pay manual to determine if it was exercising control over the drivers even during nondriving times. The reality, Walmart said, was that the drivers could freely separate themselves from the company during their layovers. There was little, if any, control over the drivers because Walmart didn’t require it, the company said.

“Even a cursory review of the record shows that Wal-Mart did not `prevent’ drivers from enjoying their layovers,” the company said in the motion.

In what may end up being Walmart’s core argument, it said the question of “control” cannot be condensed into the “simplistic proposition” that anything less than “complete freedom of movement” allows for compensation for non-work time.

The panel also erred in ruling that a class-wide verdict on liability and damages can be sustained simply because a jury had entered it, despite the lack of proof that the evidence presented could be applicable to the entire class, the attorneys said.

The motion comes two weeks after the three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the drivers were entitled to back wages under California law. State law requires that employees be paid a minimum wage covering the entire time they are under an employer’s control. The award, if upheld, would be paid to the drivers on top of the salaries they earned while employed at Walmart. The legality typically rests on the magnitude of an employer’s control rather than if an employee is required to work.

Walmart’s attorneys also advanced a novel argument: that in upholding the lower court’s decision, the panel compelled Walmart to provide lawyers for the drivers with contact info for potential new clients after each of the original plaintiffs died, lost interest in the case or were considered “unsuitable” by the drivers’ lawyers. Such actions are in conflict with state and California Supreme Court rulings, according to the Walmart attorneys.