A Texas company has been ordered to pay $240 million in damages to 32 mentally disabled workers who formerly worked at the company’s turkey processing plant in Iowa for what government lawyers described as decades of around-the-clock abuse on and off the job. The abuses included being denied bathroom breaks and being kicked in the groin. An expert witness said they had been “virtually enslaved.”
The award handed out May 1 by a federal jury was the largest ever given in the 48-year history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed the lawsuit against Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite, Texas.
The jury awarded the former workers $7.5 million in damages apiece. The defunct company is unlikely to be able to pay that amount.
In the 1960s Henry’s started employing men who had been released from Texas mental institutions. It ran the rural bunkhouse where the men lived while working at an Iowa turkey plant, removing the slaughtered birds’ innards. Officials closed the house in 2009 due to unsafe conditions including rodents and fire hazards.
According to social workers who treated the men, most of them in their 50s and 60s, after the home was closed, the men said they had been subjected to abuse by their Henry’s supervisors. They said they had been forced to work through illness and injuries, denied bathroom breaks, locked in their rooms, kicked in the groin and, in one case, handcuffed to a bed.
Sue Gant, a developmental psychologist and expert on the care of people with intellectual disabilities, interviewed the men at length and concluded they had been “virtually enslaved.”
Gant said rain entered their bedrooms through failing windows and made their beds wet. Supervisors forced them to walk in circles carrying heavy weights as punishment. Supervisors picked on a man who had a brace on his leg, often pushing him down. Others were often locked in their bedrooms at night.
State officials told the court that the abuse was uncovered in 2009, when they received a tip from a sister of one of the men. They found many of the men in need of immediate medical care, including one who couldn’t chew a waffle because of severe dental problems and another whose hands were infected from constant contact with turkey blood.
State and federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against those responsible for the abuse.
An attorney for Henry’s didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. But the company’s president, Kenneth Henry, told the Quad-City Times after the trial that he planned to appeal, calling some of the evidence “terribly exaggerated.”
“Do you think I can write a check for that?” Henry, 72, told the newspaper.
During the trial, Henry’s officials argued that their arrangement had benefited the men and said the company had received praise early on for giving them opportunities.
The new ruling is in addition to $1.3 million in back wages that a judge awarded the men last year. They had been working at the plant under Henry’s oversight since the 1970s but never received a raise from the $65 per month that Henry’s paid them after deducting what it said were the costs of room and board.
Some of the men now live in nursing facilities, while others moved in with family.
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