Perfume Allergy Sparks $10 Million Verdict

A top-ranked Detroit radio personality recently won a $10.5 million verdict after she argued that her employer failed to accommodate her perfume sensitivity and retaliated against her for filing a complaint charging that she wasn't being paid the same as men at the station.

Erin Weber, who helped boost her country radio station's ratings as a disc jockey, claimed her career collapsed after she developed a potentially life-threatening chemical sensitivity. She said the company helped create the medical disability when it forced her to broadcast for five hours from a booth filled with toxic fumes from spilled nail polish remover. The station then failed to accommodate the disability and actually exacerbated it by failing to control co-workers' use of perfumes, she contended.

In addition, Weber, 43, said the radio station fired her in retaliation for filing a complaint with the EEOC claiming she was paid less than men in comparable jobs.

"She filed under the federal Equal Pay Act and was victorious," said Weber's attorney, Raymond Sterling. "She was being paid two to three times less than men in comparable jobs at the station." He said she was paid $66,000 a year, compared to $200,000 a year for male colleagues.

Defense attorney Daniel Tukel did not return requests for comment.

One of the frustrating aspects of the case, Sterling said, has been media coverage depicting the disability as frivolous - a perception he worried jurors might adopt.

To avoid this and convince jurors of the seriousness of her claims, Sterling lined up witnesses and evidence to demonstrate the gravity of the disability. He said the defense tried to "make her look crazy" but that the medical testimony supported her contentions.

Three doctors testified to the condition, outlining how Weber had to take months off at a time when she lost her voice after being exposed to Tresor perfume worn by a co-worker.

"Exposure would create burning and swollen vocal chords and rob her of her voice. When you're a radio host this is a very serious problem, and she would be confined to voice rest, in one instance for three months," Sterling said.

A six-woman jury in U.S. District Court in Detroit deliberated for eight days before deciding in favor of Weber. They issued a verdict that included $7 million in punitive damages, $2 million for mental anguish and $1.5 million for lost income.

Sterling argued at trial that she was fired in 2001 after she filed a complaint with the EEOC and after she complained about exposure to co-workers' Tresor perfume, which is described as a sensual mix of lilac and roses. Weber claimed its chemical base made her sick and that exposure could potentially cause her airways to swell into life-threatening anaphylactic shock, Sterling said. He said Weber is not sensitive to natural odors such as flower scents but to the chemicals used in mixing the perfumes.

The company said it tried to accommodate the disability, but Weber claimed it did little to stop one particular co-worker from purposefully exposing her and setting off severe allergic reactions. The radio station denied wrong-doing at trial.

A Toxic Environment

Weber developed the disability in 1999, Sterling said. He said two large bottles of nail polish remover spilled in the broadcasting booth during a morning show about pedicures. The smell was so bad that Weber kept leaving the booth to get fresh air. She asked if another broadcasting booth could be used but radio officials refused. Despite her complaints, Sterling said she was ordered to return to the booth and broadcast for five hours.

"It was an accidental spill of caustic and toxic chemicals in the broadcast booth," said Sterling. "She wanted to switch to studio B, but they refused. Management ordered her to get back in there with these nauseating, caustic chemicals. When she went to the doctor's, they found she had suffered from chemical burns. It had burned everything in her breathing apparatus. "

Her doctors, who testified in court that she suffers from a potentially life-threatening disability, said her airways could close up with exposure. She carries an Epi-pen in case of such an emergency.

"This is a disability that can be life threatening," said Sterling. "After the initial exposure she developed an allergic condition triggered by chemical inhalation that could cause her airways to swell, causing asphyxiation and death."

Sterling said that Weber has been unable to get a job in radio broadcasting since her firing and blamed Infinity Broadcasting, which owns the station, for blacklisting her in the industry, which the company denies. She has had to turn to other markets and now works as a free-lance voiceover specialist. One of her most notable assignments is the voice on Otis elevators announcing the floors.

Failure To Accommodate

Weber said the radio station did little to accommodate her disability. Despite her repeated complaints, she said one co-worker seemed to be deliberately exposing her to Tresor.

"We had an independent witness to verify that [the co-worker] wore perfume at the [station's country music] Hoedown event," said Sterling. He said that Weber also believed that the same co-worker sprayed perfume at the station before her shifts.

Although the station established a policy in which the co-worker in question was supposed to check in with management daily to make sure she was not wearing Tresor, Sterling said that policy was not enforced.

"They claimed they had a management designated 'sniffer' whom the [co-worker] was supposed to check in with every day. I showed this was a farce. But [the station's claim] did verify that they didn't trust [the co-worker] due to her defiance," Sterling said.

He said Weber wanted to explain her disability to colleagues and wanted to have certain areas designated as no-perfume zones, but management would not agree.

"Erin at least wanted the opportunity to speak with people about the seriousness of the issue, but management refused to let her," Sterling said.

She also asked if she could restrict access to the broadcasting studio during her shift.

"They didn't restrict that at all and actually disciplined her when she created a system that would notify her when someone came in behind her while she was on the air," he said.

Sterling said that although the station talked about changing Weber's shift to avoid exposure, nothing was done about it. Officials told her not to talk to co-workers about perfume and that they would take care of it. However, she kept being exposed to the offending perfume and had to take several leaves because of resulting sickness.

"There are personality problems in the workplace, but it is up to management to make sure people are safe, and they didn't," he said. "They fired her for needing these accommodations for a problem that they created in the first place. They decided it was just easier to push her away that to really deal with the situation."

Sterling said Weber was an award-winning DJ who helped make the station one of the top Detroit stations. She was nominated five times for the nationally prestigious Country Music Association's major market personality of the year.

At trial, the radio station said Weber was fired because of her inability to do fulfill her job responsibilities, including not being able work a weekend just before she was fired.

"I showed that the only reason she could not do the shift was due to her re-exposure to coworkers' perfume two days before with the resultant swollen vocal cords and voice loss, as confirmed by a doctor," Sterling said. He said she notified the station of the voice loss and kept them apprised of her medical condition.

"They wrote her back saying we'll see you Monday, and then they fired her on Monday when she came in," he said.

Sterling argued that Weber was not shirking her duties, although she did have to take several unpaid leaves because of damage to her vocal cords.

"She had to take four medical leaves of varying duration," Sterling said. "She had not missed a day of work for seven months before."

Karen Mateo, a spokeswoman for Infinity, said, "We are disappointed in the verdict and intend to make all the appropriate post-trial motions."