Driver's Education

Gordon Guptil nearly lost his life in his Star Tribune delivery truck. Then he lost his job.

Gordon Guptil can't remember. Any recollection of the four days before and five days after the accident has been wiped out. The way he figures it, that's the good news.

At 4:52 on a clear October morning in 1996, Guptil, who had been driving delivery trucks for the Star Tribune for more than a decade, was navigating one of the newspaper's vans through a green light at the intersection of Highway 55 and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. At the same time, according to witnesses who were at the scene, a garbage truck owned by Browning Ferris Industries blew through a red light. The two vehicles collided. The driver of the garbage truck came screeching to a halt, uninjured. But when Guptil's van came out of its 360-degree pirouette, broken glass littered the blood-stained pavement.

Troy Bowman, on his way to work, was the first to reach the crumpled van. Guptil was unconscious inside, Bowman recalls, his body so twisted by the impact that his seat belt had turned into a hangman's noose. Before the paramedics arrived, Bowman and a few other passersby managed to reach into the van and hoist Guptil to get some slack in the restraint and cut it away.

The Strib circulated a photo of Guptil's smashed truck among its staff as a cautionary reminder that seat belts save lives
The Strib circulated a photo of Guptil's smashed truck among its staff as a cautionary reminder that seat belts save lives

When doctors got a look at him, it quickly became clear that Guptil hadn't fared much better than his truck: He'd suffered deep head wounds, muscular damage to his shoulders and knees, spinal injuries, and a blood clot in his right thigh that would later require a second hospitalization. A full year after the ordeal, when Dr. Steven Morgan completed a neuropsychological exam of Guptil, he concluded that the 60-year-old might forever struggle with basic, short-term memory functions.

Several months after the smash-up, the Strib circulated among its staff a photograph of the mangled truck, in poster form. The message was clear: Delivery drivers who wear their seat belts can survive the ugliest of crashes. What the Star Tribune Company didn't mention--and what is about to land them in U.S. District Court--is that after recovering to some degree from his injuries, Guptil lost his job, his retirement benefits, and, he believes, his dignity.

In a federal lawsuit filed November 19, employment attorney Andrew Tanick agrees that the Star Tribune was right not to take Guptil back as a driver; his client was, and still is, under doctor's orders not to lift heavy stacks of newspapers. What Guptil's suit does allege is that his employers were obligated by law to make accommodations for his physical limitations, either by finding him another suitable position or at the very least by giving him preference when such a job opened up. Because the company did neither, Guptil is suing the Star Tribune for violating the letter and spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

"The poor guy almost dies delivering their paper," says Tanick, summing up his case. "Then they kick him out the door."

Haunted by hindsight, Guptil now believes his fate was sealed in August 1997, when the Star Tribune's worker's compensation coordinator concluded that his physical restrictions--including a ban on repetitive squatting, climbing, or lifting more than 15 pounds--made a job in the paper's transportation department out of the question. In accordance with the paper's policy, that meant Guptil had just 90 days to find another job elsewhere in the company.

It also meant he would no longer be protected by Local 638, a chapter of the Teamsters union that represents only Strib drivers. Robert McKee, who at the time was 638's business agent, says the media company honored the Teamsters' labor contract by agreeing to provide Guptil with 104 weeks of worker's comp. Beyond that, he didn't think union pressure would be necessary; he believed the Star Tribune would do right by his union brother so he could one day collect the retirement benefits due him after a decade on the job.

"When Gordon met with the company, I sat in on the meeting. And I was really impressed with his commitment to the company and his willingness to do any reasonable job," McKee recalls. "It turned out that they allowed him an opportunity to apply for a job. But in actual fact they had already decided they weren't going to give him a job, even though he was qualified for more than one."

In September 1997 Guptil applied for a job as a cashier in the Star Tribune's retail store. To his surprise, he was told that other applicants were "more qualified," and he was never interviewed. A month later he applied for one of several positions in customer service. This time he did manage to get an interview, but the jobs were given to outside candidates who were, once again, deemed "more qualified." In November Guptil applied for work as a purchasing clerk and also made a second run at a position in customer service. Again, no dice. Later that month the Star Tribune advised him that his 90-day search period had expired. He was unemployed.

"We're not talking about someone who can't talk or who doesn't make a good appearance," declares McKee, who says he'll testify on Guptil's behalf if called. "He's been around. He's very savvy. He would've been excellent in any one of those positions. The bottom line is that they didn't want an old man doing a job that they would prefer giving to a younger employee."

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