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An Oregon jury has rejected all but $53,000 of a $1 million claim against a grocery chain by a black plaintiff who said that store employees should have protected him from an attack. What’s more, it cut that amount by finding him 47 percent responsible for injuries that occurred when he was attacked by three skinheads because he continued to fight back after store personnel told him to take the battle outside the store. The man, Velazquez Polk, was with his fianc�e looking for asthma medicine in the pharmacy department of the Fred Meyer store, in Oregon City, when he was approached by two young men and one young woman dressed in “full skinhead colors — Doc Martens boots, rolled-up jeans, racist tattoos and shaved heads,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jack D. Hoffman, of Portland’s Dunn, Carney, Allen, Higgens & Tongue. WORDS, THEN PUNCHES The youths began to “verbally attack him,” said Hoffman. “They called him nigger, told him, ‘Get out of this store, you fucking nigger.’” Then one of the youths, Dan Sessions, pushed Polk. “Val struck back and threw a punch. Sessions went down, but jumped up and charged Val. My client hit him again and knocked him back down.” Sessions continued to go after Polk, he said. As store customers and employees gathered around, Polk asked for assistance in stopping the attack, he said, with no result. During this time, Polk “was constantly asking for help” from store employees. Customers were also asking employees to stop the fight, but store personnel did not intervene, said Hoffman. Instead, “the store manager told Val to ‘take it outside.’” One white customer tried to break up the fight, said Hoffman, but the female skinhead “jumped on him.” Eventually a security guard intervened, but he sprayed pepper spray on Polk and the customer who was trying to help him. The three skinheads ran out of the store and were arrested. Sessions was later convicted of intimidation and imprisoned, he said. Polk sued Fred Meyer Inc., charging the store with failure to protect a minority customer from a racially based attack, contending that he had injured his shoulder during the altercation, that the pepper spray had caused a permanent loss of his sense of smell and that he had suffered emotional injuries. He also charged the store with discrimination for stopping him from shopping there after the incident. Polk v. Fred Meyer Inc., No. 9803534 (Cir. Ct., Clackamas Co., Ore.). “Fred Meyer knew or should have known that skinheads presented a danger to minority customers,” said Hoffman. The three people involved “had been wandering in the store for an hour or two before this episode,” he said. “These people had been involved in an assault the week before at the store.” Fred Meyer denied any failure to protect or any knowledge of prior incidents. Polk was responsible for the continuation of the fight, not the store employees, said defense counsel Henry Willener, of Portland. “He was not just fighting back, he was taunting them.” During the fight, he said, Polk told Sessions, “Fighting’s not your sport. Why don’t you take up track?” Fred Meyer also disputed the injuries claimed. “[The skinheads] never landed a blow on him. They picked on the wrong guy, and he beat the bejesus out of them.” In addition, the store denied that anyone barred Polk from shopping at the Oregon City store. The plaintiff contended that he could not have simply walked away. “Val testified that he saw the hatred in the eyes of Dan Sessions and knew he couldn’t walk away,” said Hoffman. Also, the plaintiff’s expert on hate crimes testified “that walking away wouldn’t work.” Polk was seeking $500,000 on a failure-to-protect count and $500,000 on a discrimination claim. On May 24, an Oregon City jury rejected the discrimination claim and awarded $53,000 on the failure-to-protect charge. On finding 47 percent negligence by Polk, the award will be cut to about $28,000.

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