A historic $14 million verdict in a labor trafficking suit was returned last month against shipbuilder Signal International LLC. This may be the largest trafficking verdict in U.S. history. The verdict, handed down by a jury in a Louisiana federal jury, came after a seven-year battle in Louisiana district court, and involved a collaborative effort between the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and some of the nation’s top law firms. Since Signal faces 12 more similar lawsuits, this verdict will likely impact the other cases. It definitely increases awareness about human trafficking.
The suit alleged that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, roughly 590 Indian men were trafficked into the U.S. on H-2B visas to work as welders and pipefitters at Signal sites in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas. The workers were brought in to fix oil rigs and other facilities, according to SPLC. Not only were the workers falsely promised green cards, but they had to pay mandatory recruitment and travel fees that could reach $25,000, leaving them heavily in debt. Once they had arrived in the U.S., the workers were allegedly forced to live in guarded labor camps, and were subjected to threats of deportation designed to make them too afraid to quit.
After a month-long trial a jury found that Signal, the New Orleans law firm of attorney Malvern C. Burnett, and an India-based recruiting company were liable for trafficking, racketeering and other abuses. Signal was ordered to pay about $12.25 million, while Burnett’s firm and the recruiter were each liable for $915,000.
Martina Vandenberg, the founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, told Law 360 that it’s hard to imagine that the $14 million verdict wouldn’t impact the other suits. She added”
If you think about it, this was five Plaintiffs, and those five Plaintiffs ended up with a $14 million verdict. There are hundreds of Plaintiffs waiting in the wings for their litigation to roll on through the courts. I cannot fathom how this case would not have an impact on the others.
The case failed to win class certification in 2012, prompting SPLC to put into action a pro bono effort to bring individual cases for Plaintiffs who still wanted to go forward. This resulted in a number of lawsuits being filed throughout Louisiana and Texas. Daniel Werner, who is with the SPLC, coordinated the pro bono project. There are now 13 total cases against Signal, with the next trial set to start this month in Beaumont, Texas.
Currently, 200 additional Plaintiffs have claims pending against Signal. Although the details of each worker’s situation may vary slightly, their claims all share a similar foundation. Signal’s false promises of green cards and financially motivated disregard for the workers will be at the core of each case.
The Signal litigation, and the resulting $14 million verdict, illustrate the fact that even though Plaintiffs may not have the ability to find lawyers or bring individual claims, plenty of organizations and law firms are willing to help them. Of the 147 trafficking cases that have been filed — 94 percent of which were for labor trafficking — many of them have been brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which, under Werner’s direction, is blazing the path for litigation battling human trafficking.
The legal battle against Signal is unfolding against a renewed interest in Congress and government agencies in fighting human trafficking. Recently, a new government report found that workers on H-2A and H-2B need better safeguards to protect them from prohibited recruiting fees or not being aware of a job’s true working conditions. The report followed the publication of a long-awaited rule aimed at cracking down on trafficking abuses in government contracting. Signal recently asked the court to stay the litigation so the shipbuilder can appeal the award without posting security.
Source: Law 360
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