Wal-Mart has lost its court appeal in a case involving sexual harassment filed by two of its former “associates” in New Mexico. The case arises from a lawsuit originally filed in October of 1995. In the complaint, one worker at a Sam’s Club said that a fellow employee rubbed his body against her, grabbed her breasts, repeatedly made suggestive comments about his genitals, and once tried to run over another employee with a forklift. “I felt belittled, like I was nothing,” the plaintiff said. “They didn’t care about me.” She claimed Wal-Mart managers knew about the sexual harassment but did nothing: “I blame them because it was their managers, their open door policy that was shut in my face.” During trial, Wal-Mart’s lawyer described the Sam’s Club as “a fun place to work”, and said the women did not follow the company’s policy of taking the case to a higher level of management. One plaintiff testified she was told by the store manager “never to go above his head.” The employee who was the alleged harasser had been found guilty in 1988 of charges of assault and battery against a woman, and in 1994 was also found guilty of aggravated battery and false imprisonment of his girlfriend. The employee was given a leave of absence by Wal-Mart to serve his prison term — but the company later fired him. An expert on sexual harassment who testified for the plaintiffs said Wal-Mart’s policies were “barely adequate” and “they let people do whatever they were going to do.” “I don’t know when I’ve seen so little done about so much,” the expert said. This was not the first verdict of sexual harassment against Wal-Mart. In 1995 a jury in Missouri awarded a female clerk at Wal-Mart $50 million. In 1996 a jury in Tampa awarded $2 million to a female worker for similar charges. When the 2 Santa Fe women won their award in December of 1996, Wal-Mart announced “We will appeal.” More than 2 years later, the women have prevailed again. The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld a $2.3 million award to the 2 former employees. The women were given $1.75 millioni in punitive damages, and $177,000 in compensatory damages, plus another $373,000 in costs and interest. The women, Cathy Jean Coates and Madeline Duran, said they were harassed while working at Wal-Mart in 1993, and 1994.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said that they had not seen the latest court ruling, and had no comment on the case — except to repeat that they didn’t agree with the original lower court ruling in 1996. For women like Coates and Duran, Sam’s Club was definitely not a “fun place” to work, and their court case took 4 years to resolve. At Wal-Mart, they like to say: “Our people make the difference.” The difference, in this case, cost the company millions of dollars to repair. As one former employee has said about Wal-Mart’s open door policy: If you open your mouth, you’re out the door.