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A San Diego judge gutted a $30 million punitive damages verdict in a high-profile sexual harassment case against Ralphs Grocery Co., opening the door to a third trial in the case. In an 11-page order, Superior Court Judge Michael Anello reduced the award to $8.25 million, finding that the punitive damages awarded to the six female plaintiffs were “grossly excessive” and were the result of the jury’s “passion and prejudice.” The order, released Monday, came three months after a San Diego jury granted what is believed to be the largest punitive damages award for a sexual harassment case in California, and among the top three in the United States. Under Monday’s decision, plaintiffs have 10 days to decide whether to accept the substantially reduced award or undergo a new trial. Several of the jurors in the case sent letters to the judge asking him not to throw out their $30 million damages verdict, and appeared in court during the hearing on Ralphs’ motion for a new trial. The case involves Roger Misiolek, a Ralphs store director who allegedly harassed female employees over the course of a decade. In addition to verbally harassing the women, Misiolek is alleged to have physically assaulted them by throwing objects such as telephones and clipboards. But while Judge Anello characterized Misiolek’s behavior as “utterly despicable,” he noted that “there was no evidence to support the conclusion that Misiolek was a managing agent of defendant, and the evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that defendant approved of or ratified Misiolek’s conduct.” Lawyers representing the plaintiffs assailed the latest turn of events. “It’s a slap in the face of women’s rights,” said the plaintiffs’ co-counsel Lawrence Organ, of the Law Offices of Philip Kay in San Francisco. “The only way that corporate America will take these cases seriously is if they think it can affect their bottom line.” Organ said that a decision on how to proceed had not yet been reached, and at press time he was still trying to contact the case’s six plaintiffs. An attorney for Ralphs, Helene Wasserman, in the Los Angeles office of Ford & Harrison, declined to comment. A new trial would mark the third in the case of Gober v. Ralphs Grocery, N72142. In 1998, a jury found the supermarket liable for gender harassment, failure to prevent gender harassment and malice or oppression based on its conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others, and served up $3.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages. But the judge ordered a new trial on the punitive damages because one of the jurors was a shareholder in Ralphs’ parent company, Kroger Co. In his order, Anello thanked the jurors in the second trial for their dedicated service in his order, and blamed their inflated award on the conduct of the plaintiffs’ counsel. “Plaintiffs’ counsel was unrelenting in unjustifiably suggesting, implying and directly stating that his clients were being deprived of their right to a fair trial in this case, and that evidence of defendant’s misconduct was being improperly suppressed or ‘hidden’ from the jury.”

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