In a decision that a plaintiffs' lawyer said "sends a signal to unions that violence and interference with the democratic process . . . will not be tolerated," a federal court jury found Thursday that a Los Angeles-area Teamsters local was partly responsible for assaults on challengers in a 1985 union election.
The Santa Ana federal court jury voted to award $570,000 in damages to nine dissident members of the 15,000-member Local 63 of the Teamsters Wholesale and Retail Food Distribution Union, who were seeking to challenge the entrenched union leadership.
Lawyers for the union local, citing unspecified trial errors, said they will appeal.
Jurors in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts found that the union was responsible for a bloody attack on the dissidents as they attempted to enter a union hall in Montebello on Nov. 2, 1985, to participate in a nominating meeting. Most of the dissidents ended up in the hospital, instead of the union hall.
The dissidents' leader welcomed the jury's action.
"I'm very satisfied with the outcome," said James Bender of Fountain Valley. "But there's nothing that could compensate the people for what they went through that night, particularly those who were most seriously injured."
Jurors apparently accepted as fact Bender's claims that forces in the powerful union engaged in a campaign to terrorize and intimidate some members.
Charley Stoll and David G. Finkle, lawyers for Bender and eight others, said the verdict will have a wider impact.
"The significance is that it sends a signal to unions that violence and interference with the democratic process in unions will not be tolerated," Finkle said.
One member of Bender's slate testified that the attack took place as the dissidents, seeking to challenge the incumbent secretary-treasurer, Robert E. Marciel, were walking to the union hall from their cars.
Suddenly, they were surrounded by a group of about 30 men wearing Marciel reelection T-shirts, said Harry F. Rodriguez, a 22-year Teamster member.
Rodriguez said he was struck on the head from behind, went down and was kicked. He later learned that he had been stabbed in the back with an ice pick, suffering a collapsed lung.
Bender, 54, was beaten unconscious, and Jack Douglass, 56, who planned to run for union president, said he suffered permanent hearing loss after he was knocked down and repeatedly kicked in the head.
While the national Teamsters union sanctioned a second nominating meeting several months later because of the violence, Bender and his group did not attend. Bender said he refused to participate because there were "no safeguards, protection or investigation."
Marciel, who faces another election this November, was reelected without opposition. He steadfastly denied any personal knowledge of, or involvement in, the attack, and was exonerated by jurors.
The only other individual defendant, Al Friedman, an unemployed Teamster at the time, also was held blameless by the panel.
"I guess they figured that somebody over there (at the union) was responsible," Bender said.
The jury deadlocked on whether damages also should be assessed against Teamsters Joint Council 42, representing 30 union locals covering 160,000 Teamsters in California south of San Luis Obispo. George A. Pappy, attorney for Joint Council 42, had insisted that the group had no real authority over the local, and its actions could not legally be attributed to the umbrella group.
Bender, a Southern California Teamster since 1955 who has held business agent and other leadership roles in various locals, said he had not seen violence of similar proportions before the 1985 incident.