$3.5M in Punitive Damages Vacated

An employer avoided $3.5M in punitive damages by proving it took sufficient steps to stop and prevent harassment. Otto May Jr. v. Chrysler Group, LLC, Nos. 11-3000 & 11-3109 (7th Cir. May 14, 2013). In this case, the plaintiff was subjected to dozens of threats and derogatory graffiti messages, from 2002 until 2005, based on his race, religion, and national origin. He complained to his employer about the co-worker harassment. He specifically asked the employer to install cameras near his work station; the employer did not. He provided a list of nineteen employees that he suspected of involvement in the harassment, but the employer never formally interviewed the employees. Still, the employer did take multiple steps to ameliorate the harassment, including hiring a forensic document investigator to help identify the source of the harassment, and the harassing conduct did eventually cease. The court reasoned that, “while far from perfect, [the employer’s] actions did have a positive effect on the harassment” and held there was no evidence in the record to support the jury’s finding that the employer acted with the requisite “malice” or “reckless indifference” to uphold an award for punitive damages.

This employer’s “far from perfect” response to a harassment claim may have been enough to avoid punitive damages, but it takes something close to perfection to avoid a verdict in the first place.

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