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Wonder Bread Maker Told to Pay $120 Million

Courts: Jury adds to actual-damages award of $11 million in bias case filed by 21 black workers.

August 03, 2000|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The maker of Wonder Bread and Twinkies was ordered Wednesday to pay $120 million in punitive damages to black workers who said they suffered racial discrimination on the job.

The damage award came two days after a jury ordered Interstate Bakeries Corp., the nation's largest wholesale baker, to pay $11 million in actual damages to 21 workers at its San Francisco plant.

It ranks among the largest discrimination awards of its kind.

The plaintiffs stood and applauded after the award was announced in San Francisco Superior Court. "Thank you, Jesus!" one exclaimed. Others hugged the jurors.

"I'm numb. This is definitely way beyond my wildest imagination," said Charles Wright, 52, a former deliveryman awarded a total of $16.2 million.

Lawyers for the Kansas City, Mo.-based bakery said they would appeal.

"We are disappointed that punitive damages were awarded," their statement said. "The facts of the case do not support awarding any damages."

Legal experts noted that most large punitive awards are overturned by higher courts or settled for far less.

"These jury verdicts reflect people's anger about discrimination," said Dan Stormer, a civil rights attorney in Pasadena. "But absent a settlement, large punitive damage awards like this have not fared well in the appellate court."

The jury found that the company acted with malice and oppression toward 17 of the 21 plaintiffs; those men and women will share the punitive award. All 21 share in the actual damages awarded Monday.

The bakery also said it would ask the judge to reduce the damages awarded because some of the allegations, which date back more than 30 years, occurred when Ralston Purina owned the plant.

The jury spent nine days deliberating after two months of testimony about racial slurs and other indignities suffered at the hands of co-workers.

Theodis Carroll Jr., 34, a former machine operator, testified that co-workers called him "boy" as well as a common racial epithet. And Wright said he was denied Martin Luther King Day off, even though white workers were allowed to take days off to see the San Francisco Giants play baseball.

Howard Jones Jr., a former route salesman, was awarded a total of $14.9 million. He was put on light duty after being hit by a drunk driver, but the company demanded that he sweep the parking lot, he said.

"I refused. I was treated like I was at the bottom," he said.

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