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$30.6-Million Judgment Against Ralphs Slashed

July 17, 2002|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A San Diego judge slashed by two-thirds a record $30.6-million jury award to six women who charged Ralphs Grocery Co. with covering up the behavior of a store director who sexually harassed them at several supermarkets, lawyers said Tuesday.

The women--four cashiers, a bookkeeper and a bakery manager--were awarded $5 million each in punitive damages, plus a total of $550,000 for pain and suffering at the conclusion of a five-week trial in April.

Responding to a motion by Ralphs, Superior Court Judge Michael M. Anello held a hearing on the jury's verdict June 28 and issued his decision late Monday. In it, Anello said the award was excessive and grounds for a new trial. Anello said an award of $8.8 million was more appropriate.

"He gutted" the jury award, said Larry Organ, a San Francisco lawyer representing the women. "He is basically saying, 'If you don't accept a $21.75-million reduction in the verdict, I will grant Ralphs' new-trial motion. And you will have to try the case again.' "

The trial was the second for the case. Four years earlier, the women won a $3.8-million verdict, which was thrown out because of jury misconduct.

Organ said his clients had not decided how to respond to the judge's order. Ralphs, a unit of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., had no comment.

Shares of Kroger closed down 40 cents to $19.35 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Although it is not uncommon for trial judges and appellate courts to scale back jury awards, foreman John Adair was outraged. "This is a travesty for the civil rights of people in our community," he said, referring to the plaintiffs.

Adair also said he believes such rulings make a mockery of the jury system. "The jury process has been disgraced once again," he said. "It discourages the process of jury duty because all we're doing is sitting in to offer opinions. They can take polls to gather opinions. They don't have to pull people out of their workplaces to gather opinions."

The jury award was a record in the aggregate in a sexual harassment case, but on a per-plaintiff basis others have won larger verdicts in California, which does not cap such damages.

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