In April, six female employees of a grocery chain won a record $30.6 million from a California jury in a sexual harassment lawsuit, far larger than any previous verdict in an harassment case.
The women alleged that the chain ignored 10 years of abusive language, inappropriate touching and violent behavior toward them by a store director. When they complained, they were transferred to other locations, and some were demoted. The jury determined that although the chain knew about the misconduct, it failed to investigate thoroughly or fix the problem. (Gober et al. v. Ralph's Grocery Inc., No. N72142, Super.Ct. San Diego County, 2002)
The sky-high award should shake employers: Juries are increasingly hitting companies hard when it comes to inappropriate workplace behavior. And the big number will also make potential plaintiffs sit up and notice.
"A verdict like this really reinforces the lottery aspect of litigation," California Chamber of Commerce Vice President Fred Main told the The Los Angeles Times.
California doesn't limit the size of damage awards in job discrimination cases. States that follow federal law impose a $300,000 cap on damages per plaintiff in sexual harassment suits.
In this case, the company's lack of response, not the underlying harassment, is what drove up the size of the verdict. Bottom line: A prompt, effective investigation can defeat a claim or at least keep damages manageable.
Tip: Make sexual harassment awareness training a requirement of all new employees during orientation so they get the message right away.
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