SAN FRANCISCO – A judge on Friday dramatically reduced the damages a jury awarded to 19 black workers who were discriminated against by their employer at a Wonder Bread plant.
In all, a San Francisco Superior Court jury in August awarded the black employees $121 million in punitive damages and $11 million for lost wages and for pain and suffering. But Superior Court Judge Stuart R. Pollak said the awards were excessive, and ordered Interstate Bakeries Corp., the nation’s largest bakery wholesaler, to pay $27 million.
“Even for a large corporation, these amounts are not insignificant and there is no reason to assume they will be taken lightly by the defendant or by the officers who are accountable for the financial results of the company,” Pollak’s order said.
A week ago, Pollak said he would reduce the verdict. Such a high punitive damages award, which is to punish the company and to deter it from future discrimination, was simply not “necessary,” he said.
“I’m not at all persuaded that anything like $121 million is necessary to make the point that the jury was trying to make here ... to deter such conduct in the future,” Pollak said from the bench during a three-hour hearing last week.
After a two-month trial and nine days of deliberations, a jury found that the drivers, salesman and assemblyline workers at the San Francisco plant were passed over for promotions, subjected to racial slurs and suffered other indignities.
Angela Alioto, one of the attorneys for the workers, said she was satisfied with the reduction and will urge her clients to accept Pollak’s decision. Pollak wrote that the plaintiffs could reject his ruling and seek a new trial.
“I believe my best advice would be to accept this and move on with your life,” she said.
The plaintiffs were not immediately available for comment.
The bakery, based in Kansas City, Mo., produces Wonder Bread, Twinkies, Home Pride and Hostess Cupcakes.
In a statement, the bakery said it was pleased with the judge’s decision but said it would appeal.
“We continue to believe that the allegations are unsubstantiated,” the company said.
The same jury also awarded 21 workers involved in the suit $11 million in actual damages to cover lost wages and for pain and suffering, but the judge reduced that to $3 million.
“The evidence clearly was insufficient to justify the verdict,” Pollak wrote.