Iowa jury awards $240 million to mentally disabled workers in turkey plant

(Reuters) - A jury on Wednesday awarded $240 million to 32 mentally disabled workers at an Iowa turkey-processing plant to compensate for what government attorneys described as abuse by the Texas company that employed and housed them.

A federal jury in Davenport found that Hill Country Farms, doing business as Henry’s Turkey Service, of Goldthwaite, Texas, had created an unlawful hostile environment for the men and discriminated against them on the basis of their disability. Jurors awarded them $7.5 million each, following a week-long trial, according to court documents.

The verdict was the largest ever obtained by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The verdict sends an important message that the conduct that occurred here is intolerable in this nation, and hopefully will help to restore dignity and acknowledge the humanity of the workers who were mistreated there for so many years,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a statement.

According to the lawsuit filed by the EEOC against Hill Country Farms, workers at the West Liberty, Iowa, plant were hit and kicked by Hill Country employees, called names, denied bathroom breaks and restrained or confined to rooms. Injuries and complaints of pain or requests for doctor’s visits were ignored, the complaint said.

Henry’s Turkey Service shut down in February 2009, the EEOC said.

The attorney for Hill Country Farms, David L. Scieszinski of Wilton, Iowa, was not immediately available for comment.

A federal judge last September found that Henry’s Turkey Service had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by paying the workers “severely substandard wages” - $65 a month rather than the average of $11 to $12 per hour given to non-disabled workers who performed the same work, according to the EEOC. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Wolle awarded the workers $1.3 million for the pay discrimination.

The EEOC offered evidence that the 100-year-old former schoolhouse being used as living quarters for the men was bug- and rodent-infested, inadequately heated and had a leaky roof. The state fire marshal closed it down as unsafe, the EEOC said.

Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal