A federal judge in Iowa recently reduced a $240 million jury award to 32 intellectually disabled turkey plant workers. The lawsuit, EEOC v. Hill’s Country Farms, Inc., d/b/a Henry’s Turkey Service, 3:11-CV-00041 (S.D. Iowa), alleged that the defendant violated Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by subjecting 32 intellectually disabled employees to unlawful harassment and discriminatory treatment. Specifically, the EEOC alleged on the employees’ behalf that the defendant subjected them to derogatory and humiliating name-calling based on their disabilities, and physical abuse, including hitting and kicking by the defendant’s supervisory employees. The Complaint further alleged that the defendant discriminated against the employees by relegating them to substandard living conditions, providing inadequate attention to illnesses and injuries, imposing excessively harsh discipline, denying restroom breaks and paying substandard wages as compared to those paid to similarly situated non-disabled workers.
The jury initially awarded $5.5 million in compensatory damages, plus $2 million in punitive damages, to each of the 32 employees, for a total of $240 million. That initial award marked the largest verdict ever obtained by the EEOC. Following the trial, however, the EEOC conceded that the award had to be reduced to $50,000 per employee because of the ADA’s limits on compensatory and punitive damages that could be imposed on a company the size of the defendant (more than 14, but fewer than 101, employees). Accordingly, the court entered judgment in the amount of $50,000 compensatory and punitive damages per employee, for a total judgment of $1.6 million.
Despite the sharp reduction in the verdict, this case should nevertheless stand as a reminder to employers of the potentially steep cost of violating the ADA.