Retailer AutoZone Stores Inc. should pay $185 million in punitive damages for unlawfully demoting and firing a female employee who complained about gender and pregnancy discrimination, a federal jury in San Diego ruled.
Rosario Juarez said she was demoted from a management position at a San Diego County store in 2006 after she became pregnant. The company fired Juarez after she filed a lawsuit that challenged her demotion.
“Hopefully, this verdict sends a loud and clear message to AutoZone that the company is not above the law and must treat working mothers with dignity and respect,” said Juarez’s attorney, Lawrance Bohm.
The $185 million in punitive damages awarded Monday was on top of $872,000 in compensatory damages the jury had awarded Juarez last week.
AutoZone vowed to appeal.
"We believe this verdict could not be based on the evidence or logic, and we plan to proceed with all legal remedies," AutoZone spokesman Ray Pohlman said in a statement.
Juarez said the company started treating her differently after she told a district manager in 2005 that she had become pregnant.
“Congratulations ... I guess,” Juarez said the manager told her. He then added, “I feel sorry for you.”
Juarez said AutoZone started complaining about performance shortly afterward, then demoted her.
AutoZone's lawyers argued at trial that Juarez was fired for misplacing $400 in cash. But a store loss prevention officer who led the investigation for AutoZone testified at trial that she never suspected Juarez of wrongdoing and thought the company was targeting her, Bohm said.
AutoZone sells auto and light truck parts and accessories through more than 5,000 stores in the United States, Mexico and Brazil. As of Aug. 30, it had 539 stores in California.
The company reported $9.5 billion in revenue in the 12 months ended Aug. 30.
AutoZone shares gained 53 cents, or 0.1%, on Tuesday to $568.59.