It’s not just folks who care about workers’ rights, women’s rights, racial equality, environmental stewardship, fair trade, free speech, or responsible development who have issues with Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer is also bad news for those of us who believe in the Americans with Disabilities Act. As this Daily Kos diary reminds us, the company was ordered in Feburary to pay 7.5 million dollars in damages to Patrick Murphy for reassigning him based on his disability. Now the New York Law Journal reports that the judge has cut the damages by $4.7 million to reflect the $300,000 cap on punitive damages under federal law. Judge Orenstein observed that within the limits of the law, it’s impossible to charge Wal-Mart enough to actually have the deterrent effect that punitive damages are supposed to:
“The preceding ruling respects the law,” Orenstein wrote, “but it does not achieve a just result.”…”There is no meaningful sense in which such an award can be considered punishment,” Orenstein wrote, pointing out that Wal-Mart had $300,000 in sales every 37 seconds last year…Orenstein said that Wal-Mart would not be deterred by the amount of punitive damages. He found that in dealing with Brady, the company had not adhered to a consent decree it entered into with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2001 requiring it to train managers and change hiring practices. “The most generous conclusion I could draw … was that the Wal-Mart employees who testified are well-intentioned people whom the company willfully failed to provide with sufficient training to abide by the anti-discrimination law,” Orenstein wrote. “The result,” he concluded, “was that Brady was subjected to the kind of discrimination against the disabled that both the law and the prior consent decree was designed to prevent.” The $300,000 punitive cap, he held, “appears unlikely … to restrain Wal-Mart from inflicting similar abuses on those who may be doomed to follow in Brady’s footsteps.”
Next time you hear someone arguing that arbitrary caps on the freedom of juries to assign punitive damages will protect the little guy against hordes of greedy trial lawyers, remember Patrick Murphy. And remember whoever becomes the next victim after Wal-Mart concludes once more that in the long run, discrimination is cheaper than equal opportunity.