Is It Legal to Fire Someone for Refusing to Engage In Conduct That May Endanger Public Safety ?

In Wheeler v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 108 Ill. 2d 502, 511, 485 N.E.2d 372, 377, 92 Ill. Dec. 561 (1985), the court applied the tort of retaliatory discharge in a situation where a worker was fired for refusing to engage in conduct that violated public policy, as opposed to reporting an employer for violating the law. In Wheeler, a employee of Caterpillar Tractor Company claimed that he was fired for refusing to use a machine with radioactive material. He alleged that the unit was in a dangerous condition that violated federal safety regulations promulgated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The supreme court recognized as a basis for his claim the policy of "protection of the lives and property of citizens from the hazards of radioactive material." Wheeler, 108 Ill. 2d at 511, 485 N.E.2d at 377. The court held that such a policy was enunciated in the federal Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C. 2011 et seq. (1994)), and particularly in section 5851, which protects employees who report violations of the act (42 U.S.C. 5851 (1994)). It added that this policy was as important and fundamental as the policy recognized in Palmateer of protecting the citizens from crimes of violence. Wheeler, 108 Ill. 2d at 511, 485 N.E.2d at 377.