Tire changer sues MWR

A former top tire changer for Michael Waltrip Racing sued the Cornelius-based motorsports team on Tuesday, claiming he was fired a day before undergoing surgery for a shoulder injury suffered when he was struck by a car during a NASCAR race. Brandon Hopkins helped Michael Waltrip Racing to its first Mechanix Wear Pit Crew of the Year Award in 2012. He contends team officials "blacklisted" him after his surgery by falsely accusing him of stealing a pit gun used to remove lug nuts.

As a result, he lost an unpaid internship with another NASCAR Sprint Cup team and paid work with a NASCAR Truck Series team, Hopkins says in the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Charlotte employment law lawyer Joshua Van Kampen in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. Hopkins is suing for damages, citing breach of contract, defamation, intentional interference with a contract and violation of the N.C. blacklisting statute, according to his lawsuit.

Hopkins says he was injured while changing tires for the #15 car driven by Clint Bowyer at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2013. In March 2014, a doctor with OrthoCarolina told Hopkins he needed surgery. Hopkins says he told a team official he would delay the surgery until he could no longer perform. After the April 2014 race at Texas Motor Speedway, he says he started losing feeling in his arm and requested surgery as soon as possible. A team official asked him to wait until after the season, or until the team knew whether it would make The Chase, according to the lawsuit.

Hopkins says he "sucked it up" and worked through the summer. He says the Aug. 7, 2014, surgery was a success and he "diligently" attended physical therapy. In late October, a doctor cleared him to return to work, the lawsuit says. But Michael Waltrip Racing officials told the teams that later retained Hopkins that he'd stolen a pit gun, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit calls those claims "demonstrably false," noting that Hopkins was the team member entrusted to transport the guns to each race. Just before his surgery, the lawsuit says, he mistakenly brought a pit gun home, thinking it was his personal pit gun. He didn't want to leave it at the race shop because he knew the surgery would keep him out for a while. Charlotte Observer

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