Jeffrey Sand Co. of Pine Bluff has been ordered to pay $250,000 in punitive damages for subjecting a black former employee to a racially hostile work environment.
The company dredges sand from the Arkansas River and has offices in North Little Rock and Conway. It was sued in 2016 by a former employee, Adrian Bryant, who worked for the company twice, including a five-year stint that ended when he was fired in February 2013.
Through attorney Austin Porter Jr. of Little Rock, Bryant contended in a two-day federal jury trial that he was regularly harassed by a white foreman, Jerry Skaggs, beginning in 2010. Bryant said Skaggs called him several derogatory names on a daily basis and refused his requests to stop.
The lawsuit said Bryant complained to the plant manager, Kenny Bolton, and to the company’s vice president, Joe Wickliffe, who referred the matter to Bolton but also directed Bolton to send another foreman to the Cora dredge, where Bryant worked, to investigate.
That foreman, who is now deceased, reported back that he didn’t hear or observe any racial slurs while he was present.
On Jan. 30, 2013, about five months after Bryant had a heart attack that he blamed on stress from the racial hostility, a white co-worker of Bryant’s sent an anonymous email to the company’s president, Clay McGeorge, informing him of racial comments made by Skaggs.
Court documents said Bolton investigated, and although one employee confirmed that racially derogatory comments were made, no action was taken. In firing Bryant on Feb. 11, 2013, the company cited excessive absenteeism.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Porter told jurors in closing arguments. He said that instead of taking action, the sand company “stuck its head in the sand,” exacerbating the stress on Bryant.
“In this day and age, people should not be willing to tolerate this kind of behavior in a work environment,” Porter said.
Attorney Spencer Robinson of Pine Bluff, who defended the company, argued that despite “a lot of effort to paint Mr. Skaggs as some kind of raging racist,” the employee who sent the email later admitted he never heard the remarks himself, and the other employee who acknowledged hearing derogatory remarks said he never reported them to the company.
A jury consisting of nine whites and three blacks deliberated for two hours before finding Tuesday evening that the company subjected Bryant to a racially hostile work environment and didn’t exercise reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior.
The jury awarded Bryant $1 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. Porter had sought $750,000 in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages.
He said Wednesday that it is unusual for a jury to award minimal compensatory damages and significant punitive damages, and he suspects the company will cite the discrepancy in asking that the punitive award be set aside.
McGeorge said Thursday in an emailed statement, “Jeffrey Sand Company is a caring and concerned employer. … The allegations in the recent legal matter represent behavior that is not tolerated at Jeffrey Sand Company and these allegations do not align with our core values.
“We are deeply committed to providing all of our employees with a safe and respectful workplace. Our internal investigation will continue as we look to improve our training methods and processes,” he said.
Print Headline: Harassed worker awarded damages; Sand dredger ordered to pay $250,000