A Superior Court jury awarded nearly $700,000 Thursday to a former Catholic elementary school principal after determining she was wrongfully terminated two years ago for complaining about toxic fumes at the Placentia school.
The Diocese of Orange had contended that Marion Patzem was fired in May, 1992, after a four-member committee concluded that she was a “divisive” influence at St. Joseph School. But the jury concluded that Patzem was dismissed in retaliation for her attempts to draw attention to what she said were unsafe conditions and noxious odors at the school.
“This means so much to me. The truth got told,” Patzem said outside the courtroom, wiping tears from her eyes. “I love the church, but they didn’t want to hear about the truth.”
Patzem alleged that she had been wrongfully terminated after repeatedly complaining about toxic fumes leaking from fluorescent light fixtures in a third-grade classroom. The substance was later found to be a carcinogen commonly known as PCBs.
The conflict began after a teacher and students complained of stomach pains, respiratory problems and chronic rashes.
Patzem contended in her lawsuit that the school’s pastor once poked her in the chest for making the repeated complaints. When she was fired without notice, police escorted her from the school grounds as students looked on, her suit alleged.
“It’s a real shame, what happened to her and those kids,” said one juror.
Juror Robert Wilson of Huntington Beach said he believed Patzem was fired even though her first concern was the safety of her schoolchildren. Wilson said he was tormented by trying to decide on the amount of the award.
“You just can’t put a price on something like this. Children are our future,” he said.
The jury awarded Patzem $692,500 in damages and lost wages and benefits.
Representatives for the school said the award was “too high.” Patzem’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
In 1991, Patzem was nominated by school officials as national Catholic school principal of the year.
Theresa Carey, the mother of two children who attended the school while Patzem was principal, said she was elated by the verdict. She said her children, ages 13 and 7, were expelled from the school after she also began looking into campus problems.
The first witness called to testify during the wrongful-termination suit was Bishop Norman F. McFarland, the highest-ranking official of the Diocese of Orange. McFarland denied Patzem’s claims.
In his termination letter, McFarland told Patzem she was being dismissed because “you chose not to cooperate in our efforts to look into the general unrest in St. Joseph Parish.”