A jury has awarded $240 million to 32 mentally disabled former workers at a turkey processing plant in Iowa, in what officials on Wednesday said was the largest such judgment in a federal abuse and discrimination case.
After a week-long trial, the jury in Davenport, Iowa, deliberated for about eight hours before deciding that Henry’s Turkey Service, of Goldthwaite, Texas, violated the Americans With Disabilities Act in a lawsuit brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated for so many years,” EEOC chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a statement emailed to reporters.
“This historic verdict marks one of the EEOC’s finest moments in its ongoing efforts to combat employment discrimination, especially discrimination against vulnerable and historically-underserved populations,” said P. David Lopez, the agency’s general counsel. “The fact that the jury rendered the largest verdict ever obtained by the EEOC says volumes about the severity of the violation and it illustrates this agency’s resolve to vindicate the rights of all discrimination victims.”
The jury awarded each of the former employees $7.5 million, which includes $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million to punish the company for knowingly violating the law. It is unclear how much the company, which is reportedly defunct, will be able to pay, however.
The lawyer for the company did not immediately respond to a telephone message.
The case is one of the most visible in the area of disability rights. Through the EEOC, the 32 former employees of Henry’s had sued the company in federal court, alleging unlawful harassment and discriminatory employment conditions at the company’s facility in Atalissa, Iowa.
Henry’s was a labor contractor for four decades, sending hundreds of disabled men from Texas to Iowa, where they worked for West Liberty Foods, processing turkeys, according to testimony reported by the Des Moines Register. West Liberty, which is not accused of any wrongdoing, paid Henry’s, which in turn paid the employees as well as housing and caring for them.
The employees, who were paid 41 cents an hour, were living in a former school building that had been converted into a bunkhouse. The operation was shut down in 2009 after the Register began reporting on conditions that the state eventually concluded were unsafe and involved rodent infestations and poor construction. The company argued in the trial that it was unaware of the problems, which it blamed on the town that owned the bunkhouse.
According to social workers who treated the employees after the home was closed, the men said they had been subjected to harsh discipline and abuse at the home and at work. They said they had been forced to work through illness and injuries, denied bathroom breaks, locked in their rooms, kicked in the groin and, in one case, handcuffed to a bed.
During the trial, company officials testified that they had banned a Henry’s supervisor from the plant in 2007 after learning he had abused the men.
After the bunkhouse was shut down, the Labor Department won a $1.76-million judgment against the company for federal labor law violations. Last year, the EEOC won the $1.3-million judgment for ADA wage violations, setting the stage for the current accusations of harassment and discrimination.