Monday, May 6, 2013

Big verdicts might grab headlines, but it’s the final judgment that counts

I never thought I’d read about a case in which I could say to myself, “A $240 million jury verdict doesn’t seem all that out of whack.” Then I read about the EEOC’s recent $240 million jury verdict against Henry’s Turkey Service. The agency alleged that the farm subjected its 32 mentally disabled workers to decades of abuse:

The EEOC’s press release describes the horrible working conditions to which the turkey processing plant subjected these individuals:

Specifically, the EEOC presented evidence that for years and years the owners and staffers of Henry’s Turkey subjected the workers to abusive verbal and physical harassment; restricted their freedom of movement; and imposed other harsh terms and conditions of employment such as requiring them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions, and failing to provide adequate medical care when needed.

Verbal abuses included frequently referring to the workers as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.” Class members reported acts of physical abuse including hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing the disabled workers to carry heavy weights as punishment.  The Henry’s Turkey supervisors, also the workers’ purported caretakers, were often dismissive of complaints of injuries or pain.

Robert A. Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office, which tried the case, … told the jury that Henry’s Turkey treated the men “like property.” … Canino urged the jury to think of the “broken lives of 32 hard-working but vulnerable intellectually disabled men” who were employees of Henry’s Turkey.

For more background on the Henry’s Turkey labor camps that this case helped bring to an end, I recommend this story from the Des Moines Register, which includes a timeline summarizing the camps’ 40-year history. In this context, the $7.5 million awarded to each of the 32 disabled employees ($5.5 million in compensatory damages, on top of another $2 million in punitive damages) begins to look more reasonable.

While the $240 million verdict is historically large (he biggest ever obtained by the EEOC), ultimately it will only serve as a symbol of the cruelty these 32 men endured. As the Des Moines Register articles points out, Henry’s Turkey’s assets cover less than two percent of the total verdict. Additionally, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 caps these non-economic damages, depending on the size of the employer:

  • For employers with 15 – 100 employees, damages are capped at $50,000.
  • For employers with 101 – 200 employees, damages are capped at $100,000.
  • For employers with 201 –  500 employees, damages are capped at $200,000.
  • For employers with more than employees, damages are capped at $300,000.

Thus, Henry’s Turkey maximum exposure for non-economic damages is $9.6 million.

Perhaps the lesson that employers should take away from this horrible story is that a verdict is only the first step in a plaintiff attempting to remedy a wrong. A verdict is simply the jury’s unfiltered opinion about what those eight people think the case is worth. That opinion, however, is not the final say; it is still subject to the law. A judge can lower the amount because of damage caps or for some other reason. A judge can take away the entire verdict by entering judgment notwithstanding the verdict for the defendant, or by ordering a new trial. A court of appeals can find some error in the case and reverse the judgment. Moreover, even if some or all of the verdict survives to a final judgment on which a plaintiff can execute, the plaintiff still has to be able to collect. A multi-million judgment against an insolvent defendant is not worth more than the paper on which it is printed.

We put so much effort into, and place so much emphasis on, the jury verdict that we can lose sight that often it is merely the end of the first act of a much longer play. The verdict might grab headlines, but for a defendant, the war is not over until the final judgment is entered.