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A line supervisor at an Arkansas poultry processing plant has won a jury verdict of more than $14 million on claims that his firing after 32 years of employment was racially motivated. George Williams, a 53-year-old African-American, had been working at ConAgra Poultry’s El Dorado, Ark., plant since 1969, his senior year of high school. He was fired in April 2001 after an altercation with a fellow supervisor. According to Williams’ trial lawyer, Lloyd W. “Tre” Kitchens, an attorney at the Little Rock, Ark., firm of Eubanks, Welch, Baker & Schulze, Williams had been involved in a scuffle with Willy White, who is also black. White, a ConAgra employee for 36 years, grabbed Williams around the neck during an argument, Kitchens said, adding that Williams then pushed White away from him and left the room. Later that day, Williams apologized to White. ConAgra attorney Timothy J. Pugh of Omaha, Neb.’s McGrath, North, Mullin & Kratz did not return calls for comment, but Kitchens said that the defense did not agree with Williams’ account of the scuffle. Shortly after the encounter, Williams was fired. According to Kitchens, ConAgra initially gave “conduct unbecoming a supervisor” as the justification for his dismissal. But later, Kitchens said, ConAgra tried to defend the dismissal by claiming that Williams was fired for fighting. Williams sued ConAgra in the spring of 2002, claiming that his termination was discriminatory under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. 1981. He also claimed a hostile work environment under both Title VII and 42 U.S.C. 1981. Williams alleged that during his career at the plant, where 85 percent to 90 percent of employees are black, he experienced systematic hostility in the form of slurs, racist jokes, physical encounters with white management and a differential application of discipline. On Feb. 13, a federal jury consisting of two blacks and six whites awarded him $120,210 in lost wages and benefits, $870,578 in noneconomic damages on his termination claim, and $1,100,397 in compensatory damages on his hostile-work-environment claim. It added $12,127,500 in punitives. Kitchens, who tried the case with Eubanks Welch partner Morgan E. “Chip” Welch Jr., said that their firm previously won a $275,000 verdict against ConAgra on behalf of another fired African-American. He also said current workers testified that no policy or management changes had occurred since that verdict. Kitchens said Williams was “most happy because after all these years, someone believed him and said what this company was doing was wrong. Maybe now they will fix it.”

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