$14M Conagra Discrimination


A federal court jury awarded a Smackover man more than $14 million Thursday in a lawsuit claiming race discrimination and "hostile" working conditions.

George Williams, 53, brought suit against ConAgra Poultry of El Dorado after he was terminated in April 2001 after 32 years as a supervisor with the company.

Williams, an African-American, claimed he was the victim of a discriminatory discharge and had been subjected to a hostile environment for much of the time he worked at the plant.

The jury, after hearing testimony for four days, deliberated two-and-a-half hours before awarding Williams $120,210 in lost wages and benefits on the discrimination charge and $807,578 for mental anguish associated with the termination. The jury also awarded $6.1 million in punitive damages against ConAgra on the discharge claim.

On the racially hostile environment claim, the jury awarded Williams compensatory damages of $1 million and punitive damages of $6.1 million.

ConAgra spokesman Bob McKeon said, "This award is unjustified and exorbitant. We strongly disagree with the verdict and will pursue all legal options and appeal if necessary."

Williams was represented by Morgan E. "Chip" Welch and Lloyd W. "Tre" Kitchens of the Eubanks Welch Baker & Schulze firm of Little Rock.

During the trial presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Harry Barnes, Welch said the jury heard testimony about working conditions at ConAgra, including testimony from a former employee who sued and won a hostile environment case against the company last year.

Williams' lawyers, in their closing arguments, said ConAgra had its chance to clean up a vicious cycle of hostile attitudes toward black employees but instead employed a system of "don't ask, don't tell" concerning complaints made to management.

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