The Very Expensive (and Not Very Nice) Surprise Party

Every year, the Earth makes a full trip around the sun. And in most cultures, we celebrate this annual trip on our birthdays, with our friends congratulating us on another successful orbit of that big ball of fire in the sky. Sometimes we plan our birthday parties ourselves, sometimes we leave that task to those friends, and sometimes — well, sometimes friends take matters into their own hands, preparing a celebration for us even if we don’t want one. In extreme cases, they may not even tell us about the party until we’ve arrived on the site — a “surprise party.”  Some people love surprise parties, some people loathe them — and some people sue.

It’s not as ridiculous as you think.

In 2018, a Kentucky man named Kevin Berling started a new job at Gravity Diagnostics, a medical testing company that would, a few years later, be a notable provider of Covid-19 tests. Berling, though, wouldn’t be employed there by the time the pandemic hit — his tenure at the company lasted only about ten months. The reason for his dismissal? He didn’t attend his own office birthday party, and then showed signs of what appeared to be antisocial behavior afterward. But Berling wasn’t just shy or a curmudgeon — he suffered from debilitating panic attacks. The New York Times explains:

Mr. Berling had a panic attack after he learned about the planned lunchtime celebration, which was to have included birthday wishes from colleagues and a banner decorating the break room. Mr. Berling chose to spend his lunch break in his car instead.

The next day, Mr. Berling had a panic attack in a meeting with two supervisors who confronted him about his “somber behavior,” [Berling’s lawyer] said. [This, according to the BBC, “prompted a second panic attack, after which the company sent him home” for the remainder of the day and the day after.] He was fired three days [after the meeting] in an email that suggested that Mr. Berling posed a threat to his co-workers’ safety.

Berling sued, claiming that his dismissal was unjust. And he had good reason to think that was the case. As the Times reported, Berling asserted that, a few days before his birthday, Berling “asked the office manager not to throw him a birthday party because he had an anxiety disorder” but “the party had been planned by other employees while the office manager was away and that the situation had quickly spiraled out of control.”  And therefore, the party should have never happened. in the United States, employers typically have to give a “reasonable accommodation”– “a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process” per the Department of Labor — to employees or applicants with a disability. Not throwing someone an unwanted birthday party for someone who suffers from panic attacks? That certainly seems like a legally required “modification to the work environment.”

The jury agreed. After a two-day trial, they found in favor of Berling and awarded him $450,000 — $150,000 for lost wages and $300,000 for his emotional distress. Whether he considered it a belated birthday present has gone unreported.

Bonus fact: The word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, the god of woods and pastures. He wasn’t all that scary — but could, per legend, cause a mess if you woke him up. Wikipedia’s editors explain: “The Greeks believed that he often wandered peacefully through the woods, playing a pipe, but when accidentally awakened from his noontime nap he could give a great shout that would cause flocks to stampede. From this aspect of Pan’s nature Greek authors derived the word panikos, ‘sudden fear,’ the ultimate source of the English word: ‘panic.'”

From the Archives: The Great Mustard Pickle Panic of 2016: This really has nothing to do with the main story (except for the word “panic”).