It's unusual for potential jurors to be asked whether they smoke, but that was a key question yesterday in D.C. Superior Court in a case that could become a major test of nonsmokers' rights.
The 12 jurors selected, seven of whom are nonsmokers, yesterday began hearing the case of Adel Gordon, a 34-year-old environmental sciences consultant who says she lost her $14,500 a year job in September 1979, because she was allergic to smoke.
Gordon sued her former employer, Raven Systems and Research Inc., a Washington consulting firm that does work for the Environmental Protection Agency. Gordon claims that the company promised her a smoke-free working area, did not provide one and then fired her when she insisted on the smoke-free workplace.
Gordon is seeking reinstatement, back pay, attorney fees and an unspecified amount for mental anguish. The trial before Judge F. Doyle is expected to last several days.
Raymond Mott, president of company, said in an interview that Gordon was not fired from her job, which she held for four months, because of her nonsmoking demands, but for unauthorized absence from work, insubordination and an inability to work with other staff.
She was not promised a smoke-free environment, Mott said, and the company did everything it could to accommodate her, but it does not own or control the building, which belongs to the federal government.
"We're being picked on," Mott said, "because we are a small, minority-controlled company. We're being used as a test case" for groups wanting to establish a precedent that would force employers to ban smoking in their businesses.
Gordon's attorney, Harris Ammerman, agreed that the case could set an important precedent in the District of Columbia. "This case is about an employe's basic rights to a safe and healthy workplace and in this case to the rights of a person sensitive to smoke," Ammerman told the jury.
Ammerman told the jury that there was considerable scientific evidence that healthy nonsmokers are adversely affected when exposed to tobacco smoke. That is a view that is strongly disputed by cigarette manufacturers, who claim that the evidence so far is inconclusive.
Gordon's case is bakced by an organization called Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), which promotes the rights of people who are sensitive to smoke. ASH said it feels the Gordon case is a companion to a 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that upheld a nonsmoking employe's right to be assigned work in an area free of tobacco smoke.
Gordon, who has not worked since she was fired, has submitted statements from physicians saying that she is allergic to cigarette smoke.