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Two Steps Family Employers Should Take To Limit Exposure From Staff Litigation

Johnny Depp recently settled a lawsuit brought against him by two of his former bodyguards.

The bodyguards, who work for Depp from 2016 to 2017, said that they "found themselves in situations that required more than what a bodyguard would be expected to do." According to the lawsuit, Depp exposed them to illegal substances; repeatedly told them to drive vehicles containing drugs, open containers of alcohol, and minors; and forced them to become his caretakers in order to protect him from himself when he was misbehaving in public.

The bodyguards alleged that Depp created unsafe conditions leading to a toxic work environment. As a result, they claimed they developed stress-related injuries. The bodyguards said that they were forced to leave their jobs.

The plaintiffs also alleged that Depp failed to pay them overtime or give them legally-required meal and rest breaks. The details of the settlement have not been disclosed. "Johnny Depp Settles Lawsuit With Former Bodyguards" (Jan. 14, 2019).

Commentary and Checklist

First, wrongdoing by a family member can lead to criminal liability for the staff. For example, if a family member is arrested for possession of illegal drugs in a car driven by a chauffeur, the chauffeur will be arrested for possession as well, even if he or she had no knowledge of the drugs, because they are in the common area - the car. The chauffeur will have to go to court to try to prove that the drugs did not belong to him or her.

Second, a staff member who reports illegal activity should be treated as a whistleblower and protected from retaliation for reporting. Never terminate or otherwise punish a staff member for refusing to follow an order that could be illegal, or for reporting illegal activity, even if you are the one who committed the wrongdoing.

Family employers should follow these tips to protect staff members who blow the whistle:

  • Separate whistleblowers from those they have alleged committed the wrongdoing as soon as possible.
  • Make certain that if the whistleblower is transferred, he or she agrees to the transfer in writing.
  • Make certain that the whistleblower does not suffer from pay reductions, that his or her work shifts remain the same (unless agreed upon to protect the whistleblower), and that he or she does not suffer from a hostile working environment.
  • Provide a "safe contact" for whistleblowers to report to if they believe others are retaliating against them. Have the whistleblower acknowledge in writing that you have provided the safe contact.
  • Keep the whistleblower informed of the investigation process.
  • Meet with all managers and supervisors. Discuss the investigation process and make it clear that retaliation against the whistleblower will not be tolerated.
  • After a matter is resolved, continue to monitor interactions with the whistleblower to make certain that retaliation is not occurring.
  • Document all the steps you have taken to protect the whistleblower.
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