Posts belonging to Category Judgments

Jury Returns Record $240 Million Disability Verdict in EEOC Suit

Responding to allegations that Henry’s Turkey (an Iowa-based subsidiary of Hill County Farms) subjected a class of intellectually disabled workers to verbal abuse and deprivation of rights, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit for discrimination against the turkey processor in 2011 (read the complaint here). The EEOC lawsuit was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against disabled employees in wages and workplace conditions, and bars disability-based harassment.

This case has now yielded a $240 million jury verdict, the largest in EEOC’s history according to the agency. The jury found that Henry’s Turkey had subjected the 32 plaintiffs to severe abuse and discrimination, and awarded the former employees, who earned a meager $65 per month working at Henry’s, $5.5 million each in compensatory damages and $2 million each in punitive damages.

The abuse was shocking in its cruelty. During the trial, the EEOC offered evidence that the employer (including owners and supervisors) directed verbal abuse at the workers, regularly referring to them as “retarded,” “dumb ass” and “stupid.” The company also failed to provide workers with the medical care that was needed in the course of the high-risk work and paid them well under the minimum wage. In the face of such serious allegations, Hill County Farms nonetheless opted to take the case to trial, refusing to settle through the ADA’s mandatory conciliation process.

The significance of this historic jury award is eloquently summed up by an EEOC press release: “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.”

Kransky v. Johnson & Johnson: $8.3 Million Verdict for Defective Medical Device

A Los Angeles jury has found Johnson & Johnson, the well-known household product company and world’s largest maker of medical products, liable to a plaintiff who received an artificial hip made by the company’s DePuy orthopedics division. The jury awarded $8.3 damages to the recipient of the recalled artificial hip. The verdict is the first in the more than 10,750 civil cases alleging that the artificial hip known as the Articular Surface Replacement (ASR) was defectively designed.

While the bulk of the ASR cases are consolidated in an Ohio federal district court, the Kransky case is not among them. Kransky has attracted considerable attention in the mass press as well as legal trade journals, with the The New York Times reporting that the case was accelerated to trial owing to the plaintiff’s terminal cancer and other ailments, which was also featured in Jonhnson & Johnson’s unsuccessful defense before the 12-person Los Angeles jury. 

Though the ASR’s all-metal design was believed to be an innovative advancement when introduced in 2003, the artificial hip was recalled by Johnson & Johnson in 2010 when it became clear that the metal-on-metal wear of the ASR’s two major components resulted in metallic shavings that caused tissue and bone inflammation. At the Los Angeles trial, the key piece of evidence was an internal Johnson & Johnson memo that accentuated that the “recall” of an implanted medical device is distinctly invasive, with the memo estimating that as many as 40 percent of ASR recipients would require surgical replacement.

Despite the Kransky verdict signaling that the remaining ASR litigation will be resolved in favor of the plaintiffs, attorneys on both sides have stated that the verdict is not indicative of the fate of the remaining 10,000+ claims still pending. Even so, it is difficult to envision Johnson & Johnson eluding liability as to a recalled product, implanted in vulnerable patients, and allegedly depositing metallic shavings in and around those patients’ lower abdomens.

Matamoros v. Starbucks: First Circuit Upholds
$14-Million Judgment in Tip Pooling Class Action

Emboldened by having successfully reversed a massive verdict in a similar case, Starbucks appealed a Massachusetts trial court’s $14-million judgment resulting from allegations that shift supervisors impermissibly shared tips that properly belonged to Starbucks’ baristas. See Matamoros v. Starbucks Corp., Nos. 12-1189, 12-1277 (1st Cir. Nov. 9, 2012).

In an opinion sprinkled with sardonic asides about Starbucks’ purportedly employee-friendly work atmosphere, the court noted that, while Starbucks “euphemistically describes the employees who staff its shops as ‘partners’”, there is a sharp division between the baristas who actively receive and process customer orders and the shift supervisors who predominantly manage the baristas. Id. at 2-3.

In 2009, Starbucks succeeded in reversing a nearly $100 million judgment concerning essentially the same issue. See Chau v. Starbucks, 174 Cal. App. 4th 688 (2009). California’s Fourth Appellate district held that “the trial court erred in ruling that Starbucks’s tip-allocation policy violated California law. The applicable statutes do not prohibit Starbucks from permitting shift supervisors to share in the proceeds placed in collective tip boxes.” Id. at 691. The same team of Akin Gump attorneys that represented Starbucks in the California action joined forces with local counsel from Boston-based Goodwin Procter, which included James Rehnquist, son of the former Chief Justice. This time, however, they failed to win a victory for the coffee behemoth.

The First Circuit focused principally on that portion of the Massachusetts Tips Act providing that only those with “no managerial responsibility” are eligible to share in tips. After addressing and disposing of each of Starbucks’ arguments supporting the notion that its shift supervisors lack managerial responsibility — arguments that were by turns characterized as “hair-splitting” and “disingenuous” — the First Circuit’s de novo review concluded that “the evidence canvassed above describing the work actually performed by the shift supervisors makes it pellucid that shift supervisors possess managerial responsibility. Any other conclusion would blink reality.” Matamoros at 14.

Watts v. Cox Medical Centers: Damages Limit Struck in Missouri Supreme Court Ruling

The Missouri Supreme Court, sitting en banc, has issued a potentially groundbreaking decision, overruling one of its own cases and rejecting a statute that limits the award of noneconomic damages to plaintiffs. See Watts v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs., No. SC91867 (Mo. Jul. 31, 2012) (available here). In a 4-3 decision, the court determined that the state’s $350,000 statutory cap on noneconomic damages conflicts with the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the Missouri constitution.

The plaintiff, a child born with severe brain damage caused by medical negligence, was awarded $3.371 million in compensatory medical damages and $1.45 million in noneconomic damages by the jury at the trial level. However, the trial court reduced the noneconomic damages to $350,000, consistent with the statutory cap. The trial court also approved defendants’ payment plan as to the compensatory damages, which the plaintiff contended was unreasonable due to its extremely low interest rate and 50-year payment schedule.

On appeal, the defense relied heavily on Adams v. Children’s Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 898 (Mo. 1992), where the Missouri Supreme Court clearly stated that a statutory cap on damages is not violative of the right to a jury trial under the state constitution. The plaintiff argued that Adams was wrongly decided and should be overturned. In a bold and surprising move, the court agreed with the plaintiff, holding its own precedent to be unconstitutional. Thus, Adams was overruled, and the court remanded Watts back to the trial level to have the damages award reinstated, and also instructed the lower court to adopt a new payment plan that will ensure full recovery for the plaintiff.

The Watts case was featured in the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, a film which explores the dangers of “tort reform” and how it can undermine the role of the jury and lead to unjust results for injured plaintiffs.