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Safety Complaints Led to Firing, Lawyer Alleges : Court: In closing arguments, she says two women suing Toyota of Garden Grove lost their jobs for expressing concern about the parking lot.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Complaints about the safety of a parking lot caused two employees of an Orange County auto dealership to lose their jobs, a lawyer charged Wednesday in the closing stages of a Superior Court trial.

Rosemary Holifield and Rae Lynn Wiggins sued their former employer, Toyota of Garden Grove, contending they were wrongfully fired in 1992 for expressing their fears about using the employee-designated lot, an allegation vigorously denied by the employer.

Holifield was working in the collections department and Wiggins as an inventory controller. They are together seeking more than $62,000 in lost salary and benefits, at least $250,000 for emotional distress and punitive damages.

Attorney Michelle A. Reinglass told the jury that the dealership failed to take adequate measures to protect the women’s safety, despite crime problems associated with the city-owned parking lot. Employees must use a tunnel under the Garden Grove Freeway to walk between the lot and the dealership.

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Wiggins testified that she had to seek help from an elderly security guard one morning when a man blocked her entrance to the tunnel.

“They weren’t fired because they screwed up. They weren’t fired because they did anything wrong,” Reinglass said in her closing arguments. “They were fired because they continuously complained about unsafe working conditions.”

Defense attorney Terry M. Giles, however, said that there was nothing improper about the dealership’s actions and that the women were fired because they broke company policy by not parking their cars in the lot.

He told the jury in his closing arguments that the dealership did everything possible to address the women’s fears, from posting security guards in the lot to providing valet parking, shuttle and escort services.

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Garden Grove police officers testified during portions of the 2 1/2-week trial that the area, bordered by the Bolsa Grande High School football field and Garden Grove Park, was not plagued by violent crime, Giles said. The city also allows the pedestrian tunnel to be used by children walking to and from school, he added.

“If that is unsafe, then where can we say where we are safe?” he asked the jury.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating the case today after the attorneys finish their closing arguments.

Reinglass contended in her statements that the dealership could have easily handled the situation by allowing the women to park in front of the business on Trask Avenue, a public street, or on the car lot itself, where spaces are reserved for upper management.

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She said the alternatives offered the women were inadequate, including the valet parking service. The women were worried they would be financially liable if there was an accident while the valet was driving their cars.

She characterized the actions of the dealership as “putting interests of sales above safety of employees.”

Giles said the situation has been “blown completely, completely out of proportion.”

He told the jury that the city designated the parking lot to be used by the dealership employees after residents near the business complained that customers and workers were causing traffic and parking problems in their neighborhoods.

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The employee handbook, Giles said, makes it clear that spaces in front of the business are reserved for customers and that employees are required to park in the city lot. The company had no choice but to fire the two women when they refused to follow company policy, he added.


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