A Zephyrhills woman who failed a drug test after eating two poppy seed bagels was awarded $859,000 by a federal jury in Tampa last week.
Julie E. Carter, 34, had been offered the job of systems analyst with Bankers Insurance Group of St. Petersburg in 1994. But Bankers withdrew the offer after Carter was reported to have failed a routine pre-employment drug test.
The doctor handling the drug test also told Bankers that Carter had recently taken an HIV test.
Carter's attorney says the jury verdict shows that Bankers "withdrew the job offer because they wrongly believed her to be a current or former drug user."
In fact, Carter was HIV-negative, and the poppy seeds she had eaten caused her to test positive for the same metabolic substance, or metabolite, associated with morphine.
"She feels relieved that this is over, with a verdict that says, no, she is not a drug user," said Carter's attorney, Robin Rosenberg of Holland & Knight. "Hopefully with this verdict, other companies will think how they drug test, and it won't happen to other people."
Even though poppy seeds can provide a positive result, Rosenberg said, the levels of morphine metabolite they generate are far lower than levels associated with drug use. Rosenberg said the doctor Bankers used to interpret the results of Carter's urine test was not qualified to make such evaluations. The doctor, Clayton J. Hauser, M.D., of St. Petersburg, declined to comment on Rosenberg's assertion or the jury verdict.
Carter had sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, on the interpretation that the act protects people who are perceived to be drug users or HIV-positive. The act does not protect actual drug users.
Carter now works as a manager of information services at a large Tampa company, Rosenberg said.
The jury awarded Carter compensatory damages of $240,000 and punitive damages of $600,000. The judge awarded Carter back pay of $19,000.
Kalvin Grove, a St. Petersburg lawyer representing Bankers, declined to comment on the awards.