SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 2 — The nation’s largest wholesale baker was ordered Wednesday to pay $120 million in punitive damages to black workers who said they suffered racial discrimination at a Wonder Bread plant.
THE DAMAGE AWARD came two days after a jury ordered Interstate Bakeries Corp., the Kansas City, Mo.-based company that produces Wonder Bread, Twinkies, Home Pride and Hostess Cupcakes, to pay $11 million in actual damages to 21 workers at the San Francisco plant. The judge cut that amount to $5.8 million on Wednesday.
The plaintiffs stood and applauded after the award was announced in San Francisco Superior Court. “Thank you, Jesus!” one exclaimed. Others hugged the jurors.
“I’m numb. This is definitely way beyond my wildest imagination,” said Charles Wright, 52, a former deliveryman. Lawyers for the bakery said they would appeal.
“We are disappointed that punitive damages were awarded,” their statement said. “The facts of the case do not support awarding any damages.”
Not all of the jurors agreed with the verdict, either.
Christopher Keating, a San Francisco State University student, did not award any damages during the trial’s second phase.
“I didn’t find there was a preponderance of the evidence for any of them,” he said.
Only nine of 12 jurors are required to reach a verdict under California civil law.
Jury foreman Francisco Ortiz said the workers were deserving of the verdict.
“These people were treated wrong,” the local electronics worker said. “I think we did the right thing here.”
The jury found that the company acted with malice and oppression toward 17 of the 21 plaintiffs; the 17 men and women will share the punitive award. All 21 share in the actual damages awarded Monday.
The bakery said it would ask the judge to reduce the damages awarded because some of the allegations, which date back more than 30 years, occurred when Ralston Purina owned the plant.
The jury spent nine days deliberating after two months of testimony about racial slurs and other indignities suffered at the hands of co-workers.
Theodis Carroll Jr., 34, a former machine operator, testified that co-workers called him “boy” as well as common racial epithets. And Wright said he was denied Martin Luther King Day off, even though white workers were allowed to take days off to see the San Francisco Giants.
Howard Jones Jr., a former route salesman, was put on light duty after being hit by a drunken driver, but the company demanded that he sweep the parking lot, he said. “I refused. I was treated like I was at the bottom,” he said.