IOWA CITY - For decades, the lives of 32 mentally disabled Iowa turkey processing plant workers were controlled by their Texas-based employer, which profited handsomely by hiring them out.
Regardless of sickness or injury, they were driven from the dilapidated, bug-infested bunkhouse where they were housed to their 41-cents-an-hour jobs removing the slaughtered birds' innards. Day and night, at work and at home, their overseers subjected them to verbal and physical abuse that left them with "broken hearts, broken spirits, shattered dreams, and ultimately broken lives," a government attorney said.
On Wednesday, they made history when a federal jury in Davenport awarded them $240 million - the largest verdict in the 48-year history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on their behalf.
It's unlikely the men's former employer, the now-defunct Henry's Turkey Service, of Goldthwaite, Texas, has anywhere near enough remaining assets to cover the $7.5 million in damages each man was awarded. But federal officials vowed to recover every last cent they could for the men, who had been "virtually enslaved" for many years, according to developmental psychologist Sue Gant, who interviewed them at length for the EEOC.
"That discrimination caused them such irreparable harm, and the jury got that. They understood," said Gant, an expert on the care of people with intellectual disabilities. "The amount of the award just appears to be overwhelming. I think it goes to the degree of injustice here."
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."
The jury determined that Henry's violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by creating a hostile environment and imposing discriminatory conditions of employment, and acted with "malice or reckless indifference" to their civil rights.