On April 18 2022, a significant part of online discussions focused on a man who was purportedly awarded $450,000 for an “unwanted birthday party.”
An April 16 2022 tweet by @SaycheeseDGTL summarized the claim, claiming that a Kentucky man sued his employer for “throwing him a birthday party he didn’t want and now they owe him $450K”:
That tweet stated:
This guy told his job he didn’t want a birthday party bc his anxiety. They threw him one anyways. He had a panic attack. They fired him for his “behavior”. He sued and now they owe him 450K.
TMZ.com published an item on April 18 2022, blaring the headline, “KENTUCKY MAN[,] JURY AWARDS HIM $450K FOR FIRING … Over Unwanted Office Birthday Party.” It began by framing the story as a “wacky lawsuit”:
Sometimes it pays to be fired … a Kentucky man who claims he was canned after suffering a panic attack over an unwanted office birthday party sued and a jury awarded him $450,000!
The jury awarded the loot to Kevin Berling … who sued his employer for disability discrimination, claiming he was fired 10 months into his job over a birthday party gone wrong.
In the post-social media journalism landscape, any viral “odd news” stories are primarily disseminated via headline or screenshot. Readers are exposed only to the claims of the title, and they develop an impression of the story on that limited information.
On the same day, the BBC published “US man wins $450k lawsuit after unwanted office birthday party,” reporting in its first few paragraphs:
A Kentucky man has been awarded $450,000 (£345,314) after his company threw him a surprise birthday party despite his warnings that it would trigger stress and anxiety.
The plaintiff, Kevin Berling, claims that the unwanted 2019 birthday party at Gravity Diagnostics caused him a series of panic attacks.
Mr Berling’s lawsuit alleged that the company discriminated against him based on a disability.
The company has denied any wrongdoing.
According to the lawsuit filed in Kentucky’s Kenton County, Mr Berling – who suffers from anxiety disorders – had asked his manager to not celebrate his birthday at work as it normally does for its employees, as it could potentially result in a panic attack and would bring back uncomfortable childhood memories.
Several of the social media posts had considerable engagement, representing much of the public’s understanding of the story. But a Facebook post with only a few dozen shares from April 18 2022 objected to its widespread characterization:
I am so annoyed at these headlines. Every single headline about this story has implied that this guy was awarded 450 grand because he didn’t want a birthday party. Technically speaking, this was part of the order of events, so the headline isn’t technically incorrect, but it is misleading AF. What ACTUALLY happened was the employee went to the employer and said he has an anxiety disorder and requested they not throw a party. They did anyway, and he suffered a panic attack. He spent lunch in his car recovering. He was then called in and berated, suffered another panic attack, was sent home, then FIRED for having panic attacks at work. THIS is why he won a lawsuit.
That post linked to a NBC News article about the lawsuit, “Man told employer not to celebrate his birthday. He was awarded $450,000 after unwanted party.” It reported:
The saga began in August 2019 when Berling told his office manager that he did not want to celebrate his birthday because it would trigger a panic attack. The company has a practice of having birthday celebrations at the office for employees, says the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019.
However, the company surprised him on his birthday with a celebration in the lunchroom. Berling had a panic attack, the suit says. He quickly left and finished the rest of his lunch in his car and then texted his manager, upset that the company failed to accommodate his request.
A day after the celebration, Berling was called into a meeting where he “was confronted and criticized” for his reaction, according to the lawsuit.
“This confrontation triggered another panic attack,” the lawsuit says. “At the conclusion of this meeting and because plaintiff had a panic attack, plaintiff was sent home from work for the remainder of August 8 and August 9.”
On Aug. 11 , he was sent a letter telling him he was being terminated “because of the events of the previous week,” the lawsuit says.
Immediately thereafter, NBC News’ reporting addressed the actual reason for the suit — widely framed as a $450,000 award for an “unwanted birthday party.” The outlet added that Berling’s suit “alleg[ed] disability discrimination and retaliation” — in short, he objected not to the birthday party itself, but over being fired from his job for having a panic attack.
Nearly every outlet published articles suggesting that Berling was awarded $450,000 by a jury because of an “unwanted birthday party,” a narrative that fit the extremely shareable notion that many lawsuits are frivolous, and plaintiffs can easily profit for minor complaints. In actuality, a jury decided Berling’s former employer, Gravity Diagnostics, acted improperly when they terminated him for a medical reason, which was panic attacks. Berling was awarded $300,000 in damages, and an additional $150,000 for lost wages due to the firing.