IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A juror says she wanted to send a message by supporting a historic $240 million verdict for 32 mentally disabled men who faced decades of abuse by a Texas company: Never again.
Juror Robin Griebel outlined her rationale for awarding $7.5 million to each former employee of Henry’s Turkey Service, while the men, their attorney and relatives celebrated Wednesday’s verdict.
One man planned to dress up for a steak dinner with Robert Canino, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer who represented them. Another hoped to use any damages recovered to fulfill his dream of buying a camper.
Griebel, of Davenport, was part of the eight-member jury for the trial, which exposed the deplorable conditions the men faced living in a rural Iowa bunkhouse while working at a turkey processing plant. They were forced to work grueling jobs through injuries, were verbally and physically abused by supervisors and lived in a filthy, century-old building.
Jurors wanted to try to compensate the men for their suffering while holding the company accountable for mistreatment, Griebel said. It’s the largest verdict obtained by EEOC.
“We wanted to let the men know there are people out there that do care, and we wanted to let people out there know that, in the future, this cannot happen,” she told The Associated Press.
She said the jurors agreed quickly during deliberations that the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hard part was figuring out how to calculate damages because “life does not have a dollar amount.”
“They were in there for 30 years. They had their lives taken away from them,” said Griebel, 48, who is unemployed. “Nothing can compensate these men for what they went through or for what they have missed out on.”
Sherri Brown, sister of former worker Keith Brown, who now lives in Fayetteville, Ark., spurred state officials in 2009 to investigate the bunkhouse, which they closed and then took the men into custody.
Her brother lived there 30 years while working at West Liberty Foods, which paid Henry’s $500,000 annually for the men’s work. Sue Gant, an expert witness for EEOC, prepared a report showing Brown was routinely forced to carry heavy weights as punishment, locked in his room and called derogatory names — like the other workers.
When the bunkhouse was shuttered, Brown was underweight and in need of mental health treatment, the report said. He’s since had surgery for a hernia and takes sleep medicine because he suffers from nightmares about the abuse, Gant found.
Despite medical problems, he’s happier than ever: living in an apartment, working at a center for the disabled, cooking his own meals, his sister said.
“What is amazing is how resilient the guys have been,” she said. “They are so happy to be out of that. They have a new life.”
Canino said the verdict will likely be reduced because of damage limits in the ADA, but it’s not clear by how much. Lawyers will file briefs before U.S. Senior Judge Charles Wolle enters a judgment in coming weeks.
Wolle has already ordered Henry’s to pay $1.3 million in back wages because the company paid workers $65 monthly — 41 cents per hour — after excessively docking their paychecks and Social Security benefits for the cost of their care.
Henry’s, now defunct, isn’t expected to have the resources to pay. Canino said he will seek to collect as much as possible by going after assets, including 1,000 acres of Texas ranchland.
Canino was traveling to Waterloo, Iowa, to celebrate the verdict with former workers. One of them, Gene Berg, was disappointed that he wasn’t called to testify because he’d picked out the outfit he was going to wear and was “so proud,” Canino said.
“I promised I would drive up there and have dinner with him, wearing the outfit he was going to wear in court,” he said.
Keith Brown reacted to the verdict by expressing his desire to buy a camper so that he can retire on a relative’s farm, Sherri Brown said.
“He kept saying, what about the money, can I get my camper? I keep trying to explain the process: That’s going to be a difficult thing,” she said. “But it’s so good that he has a dream.”
Sherri Brown said her father had good intentions when he placed Keith with Henry’s in the 1970s, noting Texas officials promoted the company for training the mentally disabled. Henry’s sent hundreds of men to labor camps in Iowa and elsewhere.
Founder T.H. Johnson lived at the Iowa bunkhouse until his death in 2008. Sherri Brown said conditions started to really deteriorate then. Her brother was begging her to allow him to move to Arkansas, but wouldn’t explain what was wrong.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. She called state officials in 2009 asking them to investigate.
Within days, they shut down the former schoolhouse after the fire marshal declared it uninhabitable. It was infested with mice and cockroaches and had a leaky roof, boarded-up windows that failed to keep out cold and fire hazards that included space heaters as the only source of heat.
“I think greed got in the way. They saw the dollar signs,” Sherri Brown said. “They saw how easy it was to make money and keep these guys hidden away.”
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