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6 Women Win Suit Against Employer Ralphs

Courts: The plaintiffs' attorney says the $30.6-million jury verdict is the largest in a sexual harassment case.

April 06, 2002|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury in Vista, Calif., awarded $30.6 million Friday to six women who alleged they had been subjected to sexual harassment in their jobs at several San Diego County Ralphs supermarkets, lawyers said.

The women accused the store chain of engaging in a cover-up of offensive and violent behavior by a store director by transferring his accusers out of the stores where he worked, said Philip Kay, a San Francisco attorney who represented the women.

Kay said the jury verdict is the largest in the nation in a sexual harassment case.

"The message [jurors] sent was corporations have to exhibit responsibility," Kay said. "This type of absolutely vile conduct that was covered up should never be tolerated by anybody or any corporation."

Representatives of Ralphs Grocery Co. could not be reached for comment.

The six women--four cashiers, one bookkeeper and one bakery department manager--were awarded $5 million each in punitive damages, plus a total of $550,000 for pain and suffering. They also may seek to have Ralphs pay their attorney fees.

The women, four of whom still work for Ralphs, alleged a Ralphs store director berated them with misogynistic slurs and threw shopping carts, 40-pound mailbags and telephones at them, a pattern of harassment that began in 1985, Kay said.

Ralphs was accused of helping to cover up the actions of the store director, who worked in several locations, because he was good at boosting sales, Kay said. The store director resigned two years ago.

The trial was the second in the case. The first trial four years ago resulted in a $3.8-million verdict that was thrown out because of jury misconduct.

Two other women, a current and a former employee, have similar sexual harassment lawsuits pending against Ralphs in Los Angeles, said Jason Oliver, their lawyer. That case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. settled a sexual harassment suit in 1998 for $34 million, a record out-of-court adjudication of such a case.

Ralphs operates more than 450 stores under Ralphs, Food4Less and other brands from its headquarters in Los Angeles. The company is a unit of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket operator. Kroger acquired Ralphs in 1999 when it purchased Fred Meyer Inc. Fred Meyer had acquired Ralphs just a year before.

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