JPL 'intelligent design' trial coming to a close

Closing arguments may take place next week in the case of a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory worker who claims he was fired for his advocacy of the theory of intelligent design of the universe.

David Coppedge, a former systems administrator on JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn, is seeking unspecified damages, though an expert witness called on his behalf estimated Coppedge is entitled to about $850,000 in lost and potential wages, according to attorney William Becker. Coppedge also is seeking an unspecified amount for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Coppedge was demoted in 2009 and laid off in January 2011. He said he was improperly disciplined for his discussion of religious and political matters, but other witnesses have said Coppedge was terminated from his job because of poor workplace performance.

Earlier this week Becker and James Zapp, the lead attorney for JPL, argued over the witnesses JPL could call in an attempt to refute Coppedge's claim.

“They can come in with 90 people who will say my client is a bum, but the documentary evidence doesn't hold up,” Becker said.

Zapp said the witnesses would bolster testimony offered earlier in the case that Coppedge had earned a reputation within JPL as a stubborn and uncooperative co-worker.

One of JPL's remaining witnesses is economist Michael Ward, who Zapp said will counter the $850,000 figure offered by Coppedge's economic expert, Ted Vavoulis.

“Despite the recession, the market in IT and system administrators is actually a good market, and is one of the few growing markets for jobs,” Zapp said, suggesting Coppedge could have quickly returned to work elsewhere. “Under our calculations from something like $250,000 to a little over $300,000 would be the range, if he should prevail.”

Also at stake in the case are attorneys' fees and costs, which JPL would have to pay if Coppedge wins.

Becker said his costs to date are around $75,000, but that does not include his attorney fees. “I won't put a number on it, but you can imagine what two years of work would be,” he said.

The case is being tried without a jury before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige.

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