Supreme Court to rule on punitive damages Justices to determine extra payments for discrimination cases

Judiciary

November 03, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will determine when employers will have to pay extra -- punitive -- damages when sex, race and other discrimination occurs in the workplace.

Seven years after Congress first permitted the award of damages in Title VII job bias cases, lower courts are deeply divided over legal standards to guide juries when they find discrimination.

Under the 1991 civil rights law, workers who prove that they are victims of intentional workplace discrimination may seek damages to compensate for their actual losses in pay and benefits, and may also ask for punitive damages.

The law says that all damages, combined, may not exceed $50,000 for small employers and $300,000 for larger employers. Before 1991, a bias victim could regain a job, obtain a promotion or recover lost pay but could not win any damages.

Congress did not say specifically when punitive damages could be tacked onto compensatory damages. But it did say that punitive damages could be awarded if the employer showed "reckless indifference" to a worker's rights.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, splitting 6-5 in a decision in May, ruled that an employer's conduct must be "outrageous" and should be "reserved for only the worst cases." That is a strict standard that is very difficult to meet.

But other courts have said that if a jury awards compensatory damages, it can award punitive damages, too, without any further proof of wrongdoing. Carole Kolstad, who lost to a man in seeking a key job in the American Dental Association's Washington office, urged the justices to adopt the more lenient standard.

Kolstad won $52,718 in compensation damages, equal to the back pay she sought. But the judge refused to let the jury consider punitive damages.

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected next year.

In a separate case, the court turned aside a plea by the U.S. Labor Department to reinstate a $7,000 penalty against a Maryland-based steel construction company, L. R. Willson & Sons Inc.

Occupational safety officials imposed that penalty after finding that the company, based in Gambrills, had used workers on an 80-foot-high work site in Orlando, Fla., without putting a safety net under them or having them attached to safety cables.

A federal appeals court rejected the fine, ruling that it was based on too strict a standard of liability for the company.

It was up to the Labor Department, the appeals court ruled, to prove that the safety hazard at the site could have been prevented or foreseen.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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