A historic $240 million verdict was returned by an Iowa jury in favor of 32 mentally disabled men who faced decades of abuse by a Texas company. The jury awarded $7.5 million to each of the former employees of Henry’s Turkey Service. The trial exposed the deplorable conditions the men faced living in a rural eastern Iowa bunkhouse while working at a turkey processing plant. They were forced to work a very hard job through injuries, were verbally and physically abused by supervisors and lived in a filthy, century-old building. It was reported that jurors wanted to compensate the men for their suffering and also punish the company and hold it accountable for the mistreatment. This is the largest verdict ever obtained by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The jurors agreed that the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in numerous ways.
State officials in 2009 started to investigate the bunkhouse, which they closed. The men were taken into custody. West Liberty Foods paid Henry’s $500,000 annually for the men’s work. Sue Gant, an expert witness for EEOC, prepared a report showing one of the men 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, the employee was underweight and in need of mental health treatment, the report said. He has since had surgery for a hernia and takes sleep medicine because he suffers from nightmares about the abuse.
Lawyers will file briefs before U.S. Senior Judge Charles Wolle, who will enter a judgment in coming weeks. Judge 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. It was reported that Texas officials promoted the company in the 1970s for training the mentally disabled. Henry’s reportedly sent hundreds of men to labor camps in Iowa and elsewhere.
It appears Henry’s founder, T.H. Johnson, actually lived at the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, about 35 miles from the Illinois border, until his 2008 death. It was reported that with Mr. Johnson’s death conditions started to really deteriorate. When the sister of one of the men reported the horrible situation to state officials in 2009, the state started the investigation. 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. Hopefully, this sort of thing won’t happen again.
Source: New York Times
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