A look into one of the bunkhouse bedrooms
In a decision that legal experts are calling “stunning,” an Iowa jury this morning awarded $240 million to the 32 mentally disabled men who faced decades of discrimination and abuse while working for Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa.
When jurors announced the judgment, after less than eight hours of deliberation, Sherri Brown, the sister of one of the 32 men, broke down in tears inside the Davenport courtroom.
“I totally lost it,” she said later. “I wanted the jury to make a statement so that my brother Keith and all of those men would know that someone had heard them. And if this isn’t a statement, I don’t know what is.”
The $240 million judgment reflects $2 million in punitive damages for each of the 32 men, plus $5.5 million in compensatory damages for each of the men.
Steven Schwartz, a disability rights attorney and former Harvard professor, said today’s judgment will be heard across the nation.
“It’s stunning,” he said. “It’s amazing. I’m almost incredulous. I think this verdict sends an incredibly powerful message to jurors all over the country. And of course it sends an equally powerful message to the people who cause this sort of harm. This is also an extraordinary testament to the EEOC and its attorneys, Robert Canino in particular, that they are willing to stand up for people with mental disabilities. They represent the best our government can be.”
Schwartz, who is trying to obtain community-support services in Texas for five former bunkhouse residents, said one of the biggest challenge in discrimination cases is convincing a jury that people with disabilities have just as much value as everyone else…
Through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 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 labor camp in Atalissa.
Over a period of 40 years, Henry’s sent hundreds of disabled men from Texas to Iowa where they worked in a West Liberty meat-processing plant for 41 cents an hour. The men were housed in a 100-year-old Atalissa school building the company converted to a bunkhouse. The operation was shut down in February 2009, after The Des Moines Register asked state officials about conditions inside the bunkhouse and the company’s lack of a license to care for disabled adults…
“The amount of this jury award is phenomenal in assigning responsibility for all of the wrongdoing that took place, and it also sends a message that this sort of conduct deserves more than a slap on the hand,” Dr. Sue Gant said. “But how do you put a value on decades of lost opportunity? You can’t recapture those years… These men were hidden away for decades, and for others’ personal gain. These were humans who were treated like cattle — like company property, like just another source of income for the company…”
RTFA for some of the disgusting details.
If you think the worst treatment for workers you ever read of only happened decades ago, have yourself another think. Here’s a firm that specialized in providing mentally-disabled men to live and work like serfs from the Dark Ages to optimize profits. That they were human beings wasn’t even an afterthought.