Juror: Landmark EEOC verdict in Iowa sends message

IOWA CITY – A juror says she wanted to send a message by supporting a historic $240 million verdict for 32 mentally disabled men who faced decades of abuse by a Texas company: Never again.

Juror Robin Griebel outlined her rationale for awarding $7.5 million to each former employee of Henry’s Turkey Service, while the men, their attorney and relatives celebrated Wednesday’s verdict. One man planned to dress up for a steak dinner with Robert Canino, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer who represented them. Another hoped to use any damages recovered to fulfill his dream of buying a camper.

Griebel, of Davenport, was part of the eight-member jury for the trial, which exposed the deplorable conditions the men faced living in a rural eastern Iowa bunkhouse while working at a turkey processing plant. They were forced to work grueling jobs through injuries, were verbally and physically abused by supervisors and lived in a filthy, century-old building.

Jurors wanted to try to compensate the men for their suffering while holding the company accountable for mistreatment, Griebel said. It’s the largest verdict obtained by EEOC.

“We wanted to let the men know there are people out there that do care, and we wanted to let people out there know that, in the future, this cannot happen,” she told The Associated Press.

She said the jurors agreed quickly during deliberations that the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hard part was figuring out how to calculate damages because “life does not have a dollar amount.”

“They were in there for 30 years. They had their lives taken away from them,” said Griebel, 48, who is unemployed. “Nothing can compensate these men for what they went through or for what they have missed out on.”

Sherri Brown, sister of former worker Keith Brown, who now lives in Fayetteville, Ark., spurred state officials in 2009 to investigate the bunkhouse, which they closed and then took the men into custody.

Her brother lived there 30 years while working at West Liberty Foods, which paid Henry’s $500,000 annually for the men’s work. Sue Gant, an expert witness for EEOC, prepared a report showing Brown was routinely forced to carry heavy weights as punishment, locked in his room and called derogatory names – like the other workers.