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$25 million awarded to steelworker in racial suit; ArcelorMittal Steel, executives found liable

Elijah Turley still remembers the stuffed monkey with a noose around its neck found hanging from his driver's side mirror.

He also remembers the "KKK" and "King Kong" graffiti on the walls of the Lackawanna steel plant where he worked for 14 years.

And if that wasn't bad enough, there were the racial slurs from co-workers.

A federal court jury awarded Turley $25 million in damages Tuesday after finding his former employers and their executives liable for a culture of racial discrimination that one of his lawyers said was reminiscent of the 1950s.

"It's absolutely shocking that a case like this is in court in 2012," Ryan J. Mills, Turley's lawyer, said in his closing argument. "It should be viewed as atrocious and intolerable in a civilized society."

The jury's unanimous decision followed a three-week trial at which Turley, an African-American, testified about a series of incidents during his time working at the former ArcelorMittal Steel plant in Lackawanna. Turley, a processor operator in the plant's pickler department, testified that the incidents from 2005 to 2008 left him a physical and emotional wreck and forever changed his life.

"This case is about the breakdown of a man," Mills told the jury. "He wanted to be treated equally, treated equally in a culture that hadn't changed since the '50s."

The jury of eight men and women seemed to agree and, after getting instructions from Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, found ArcelorMittal and some of its former executives responsible.

The jury found the corporation, a global steelmaking giant based in Luxembourg, liable for all but a small percentage of the $25 million award. And of the damages attributed to ArcelorMittal, the overwhelming share were punitive damages, intended to either punish the company or deter it from engaging in similar conduct.

Lawyers for ArcelorMittal acknowledged during the trial that many of the incidents happened but argued that the company and its executives were caught in the middle.

They also suggested that much of what happened at the steel plant is the kind of "trash-talking" that's common in manufacturing facilities.

"The defendants did not actively participate in this conduct," James R. Grasso, a lawyer for the company and its executives, told the jury. "They took reasonable steps to stop what was going on."

Grasso pointed to the company's hiring of a private investigator, the installation of security cameras and the suspension of employees involved in the incidents.

"This is not the conduct of someone trying to decompose a man," Grasso said in his closing argument.

In the end, the jury found in favor of Turley, who is married with three children. He hugged each member of his legal team as they left the courtroom Tuesday.

For three weeks, it was Turley's physical and emotional health that took center stage in the trial.

He and others testified about the "harassment" he endured at the plant and of the instances when he was called "monkey" or "boy."

In his court papers, Turley offered a chronology of events that included the stuffed monkey hanging from his car in the plant parking lot and the "KKK" graffiti written on chalk inside the facility.

Others testified during the trial about finding Turley crying and how their once-vibrant, engaging co-worker had turned quiet and somber at work.

His lawyers also documented the company's response to the incidents and suggested that company officials failed to respond adequately.

They specifically pointed to former Labor Relations Manager Larry D. Sampsell, former Human Resources Manager Gerald C. Marchand and the former manager of the pickler department, Thomas Jaworski, all of whom were found liable in the case.

"All these incidents and no meaningful investigation," Mills told the jury at one point.

In the end, the jury found ArcelorMittal liable for allowing a "hostile work environment" to exist and for the "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

"Elijah Turley and his family are very pleased that justice was finally obtained," Mills said in a statement Tuesday. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for the jury in this case."

Grasso declined to comment on the possibility of an appeal, and a spokeswoman said the company would comment on the case later.

Production at ArcelorMittal's plant in Lackawanna ended in 2009, but the company continues to operate dozens of other plants across the country.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com