A jury awarded $26.6 million Tuesday to a former Miller Brewing executive who sued the company for firing him after he discussed a racy episode of “Seinfeld” with a female co-worker.
Jerold Mackenzie was fired from his $95,000-a-year job in 1993 after he told Patricia Best about the episode and she complained.
Mackenzie said he was relieved by the verdict.
“You should be able to talk to your co-workers. You should be able to talk to subordinates as you would talk to anybody else,” he said.
Miller will appeal, spokesman Mike Brophy said.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Mackenzie’s lawyer said he was targeted by executives who wanted to get rid of him.
“They were out to get this guy,” Gerald Boyle said. “I am telling you right now what happened to that man is so indecent that it cries to heaven for vengeance.”
Miller attorney Mary Pat Ninneman said Mackenzie was fired because the conversation with Best was the last in a series of bad management decisions.
“He was on thin ice,” Ninneman said, saying the Milwaukee-based company had reprimanded Mackenzie in 1989 after hearing allegations of sexual harassment.
In the lawsuit, Mackenzie claimed that Miller, Best and a company executive interfered with his employment.
The award includes $24.5 million against Miller, $1.5 million against Best and $601,500 against Miller executive Robert Smith.
Of the total, $18 million was punitive.
It is among the largest jury awards in such cases. But rarely do such rich awards survive on appeal.
In 1994, two Hughes Aircraft employees were awarded $89.5 million by a jury deciding their case of racial discrimination in the workplace. But that ruling was later reversed.
Likewise, Janella Sue Martin of Los Angeles won a $20-million jury award in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Texaco in 1992. But a judge threw out the decision, and she later settled with Texaco for about $2 million.
In the episode of the NBC sitcom cited at trial, Jerry Seinfeld’s character can’t remember the name of his girlfriend, only that it rhymes with a female body part.
Jerry and his friends try a few guesses, including “Mulva” and “Gipple.”
Only after the woman realizes Jerry doesn’t know her name and runs off does he remember and scream out “Dolores!”
Boyle told the jury that the company had it in for Mackenzie from years earlier and merely used the “Seinfeld” conversation to fire him.
“He’s a goof who comes into work and talks about ‘Seinfeld’ and finds himself for 1,573 days without a job,” he said.
Juror Clint Baer, one of two men on the panel, said the jury spent much of the roughly six hours in deliberations talking about how the circumstances didn’t qualify as sexual harassment.
Mackenzie testified that he never said the word of the body part and, instead, showed Best a photocopied page from the dictionary with the word “clitoris” on it.
Best left the courtroom with her husband without comment.