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An Oakland jury Thursday whacked Wal-Mart Stores Inc. with a $172 million verdict � including $115 million in punitive damages � for failing to provide a class of about 200,000 employees with legally mandated meal breaks. The verdict, said Frederick Furth, who represented the plaintiff class with three other lawyers at the Furth Firm, is the largest ever in a meal-break class action in California. “I’d say that’s pretty huge,” Furth said Thursday. “We’re very pleased with the result.” Neal Manne, a lawyer with Susman Godfrey in Houston who argued the case for Wal-Mart, didn’t return a call by press time, nor did Wal-Mart spokespersons. Since California passed a law in 2001 mandating that employees who work at least six hours receive a 30-minute lunch break, class actions over these claims have been closely watched by the employment bar. They are seen as an area of great potential liability for employers. The Wal-Mart verdict reinforces that notion, said Michael Loeb, a partner at Bingham McCutchen who has defended and mediated meal-break class actions. Most employers have assumed that they are liable only for compensatory damages in such suits, he said. “How do you get punitive damages? I am kind of surprised,” Loeb said. “That’s a mind boggler.” The case, Savaglio v. Wal-Mart Stores, C-835687, was heard by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw. Linda Dardarian, a partner at Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen & Dardarian who represents plaintiffs in meal-break class actions, called the verdict “stunning.”"That’s just great,” she said. “I think it shows the significance of how seriously the public views people’s entitlement to take a rest break.” Wal-Mart faces dozens of other employment class actions around the country, including additional suits filed by Furth in Alameda County and Massachusetts that the company failed to properly pay hourly wages, as well as a suit pending trial in San Francisco federal court accusing Wal-Mart of discriminating against its 1.6 million female employees. That case is on hold now, waiting for the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to decide a challenge by the company to the class certification in the case. Brad Seligman, executive director of the Berkeley-based Impact Fund, represents the class of women and was heartened by Thursday’s verdict. “Whatever illusions Wal-Mart might have about how it would do in front of a jury might be dispelled,” he said. “That’s a valuable lesson for the company to learn.” Loeb said that if the verdict stands � Wal-Mart is expected to appeal � it could have a profound effect on the future of meal-break litigation. “You make these cases a lot harder to settle without litigating,” he said. “You’re changing the leverage calculus.”

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