PROVO A former salesman at a Utah County company claims that his boss had subjected him to an interrogation technique known as waterboarding during a motivational training exercise.
In response, executives at Prosper Inc. say the ex-employee is just after money.
According to a lawsuit filed last month in 4th District Court, on May 29, Joshua Christopherson, a team manager for Prosper Inc., a Provo-based business that offers educational training, asked for volunteers for a motivational exercise.
Chad Hudgens, a 26-year-old salesman from Provo, said he volunteered for the activity, and said he did not know what was to follow.
Christopherson then led his team to a hill outside the office, the lawsuit states, and instructed team members to hold Hudgens by the arms and legs. He then "slowly poured a gallon jug of water over Hudgens' mouth and nostrils," making it impossible for Hudgens to breath, according to the lawsuit.
"At the conclusion of his abusive demonstration, Christopherson told the team that he wanted them to work as hard on making sales as Chad had worked to breathe while he was being waterboarded," the suit stated.
Hudgens said Prosper took no action when he reported the incident to the company's human resources department later that day. But Prosper President Dave Ellis said the firm conducted a thorough investigation that contradicts Hudgens' account.
"There are huge time gaps that makes you question some of the credibility of the case," Ellis said.
Hudgens didn't report the incident for more than a month, Ellis said. Prosper immediately put Christopherson on suspension for two weeks while an outside investigator was called into interview people who witnessed the event, Ellis said.
He was later allowed to come back because, according to witnesses, the incident "was not that serious."
"It was not even remotely extrapolated to waterboarding," he said.
According to witnesses, Hudgens knew what was going to happen before he volunteered and he was "jovial and laughing about it," Ellis said. Afterwards, he accompanied the rest of his co-workers to a water-skiing and water-tubing activity.
Ellis added Hudgens didn't exhibit any symptoms of sleeplessness, anxiety and depression, as the suit claims he developed after the incident.
"He wasn't claiming that until he lawyered up," he said.
Sean Egan, attorney for Hudgens, said his client's reaction was similar to victims who endured an assault or other traumatic experience.
"It was very upsetting to him," Egan said. "He didn't know what to do."
In his suit, Hudgens also claims Prosper engaged in "physically and emotionally abusive and intimidating conduct for the express purpose of increasing the productivity of the team." Specifically, he claimed Christopherson would use a permanent marker to draw mustaches on underperforming employees, routinely removed chairs from employees who did not meet performance goals, and carried a large, wooden paddle that "he routinely struck on tables and desktops."
Ellis refuted all those claims. He said Prosper was a 2007 finalist for Utah Work/Life Award, and the company has a solid reputation as a "workplace friendly" environment.
"This is nothing like how we treat our employees," he said.
Hudgens wants $10,000 for damages. Ellis said his company will fight the lawsuit because they worry that it's a shakedown for money.
"We don't want to be intimidated by that," he said. "We'll be vindicated in the legal process."
Egan said he was equally optimistic in a potential trial's outcome."We're happy to let a jury decide," he said.