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Ex-Wonder Bread workers awarded $120 million in discrimination suit

SHARE Ex-Wonder Bread workers awarded $120 million in discrimination suit

SAN FRANCISCO — One man complained he was forced to endure racial epithets. Another said he was ordered to do strenuous jobs despite his disabilities. A third had to work during a federal holiday.

They were among 17 black former employees at a Wonder Bread plant who were awarded $120 million in punitive damages Wednesday in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the nation's largest wholesale baker.

Interstate Bakeries Corp., the company based in Kansas City, Mo., that produces Wonder Bread, Twinkies, Home Pride and Hostess Cupcakes, said it would appeal the award.

After the verdict was read and the jury dismissed, the former plant workers hugged and kissed — some even embracing jurors. "Thank you Jesus!" one former employee shouted from the back of the courtroom in San Francisco Superior Court.

"I think this is a wake-up call," Waukeen McCoy, one of the employees' attorneys, said as he hugged a client.

The verdict came two days after the same jury found that all 21 employees in the suit were subjected to working conditions inferior to those of their white counterparts.

The plaintiffs, all workers at one San Francisco plant, claimed they were denied promotions, subjected to racist comments and given the worst shifts.

After a two-month trial, the panel on Monday awarded them $11 million in damages but said the 17 who suffered the most could claim punitive damages. The judge cut the $11 million to $5.8 million on Wednesday.

The 17 men and women will share the punitive award, which is designed to punish a company for wrongdoing. All 21 share in the actual damages awarded Monday.

"We are disappointed that punitive damages were awarded," lawyers for the bakery said in a statement. "The facts of the case do not support awarding any damages."

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.

"These people were treated wrong," said jury foreman Francisco Ortiz, an electronics worker. "I think we did the right thing here."

Charles Wright, a 52-year-old former delivery man, said white workers were allowed to take days off for most any reason but the company wouldn't let him off to honor Martin Luther King Day.

"This is definitely way beyond my wildest imagination," Wright said about the verdict.

Not all of the jurors agreed with the verdict.

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.

The jury, which included two black members, spent nine days deliberating over testimony about racial slurs and other indignities suffered at the hands of co-workers.

Theodis Carroll Jr., 34, a former machine operator, testified that white co-workers called him "boy" as well as common racial epithets.

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.