A U.S.District Court jury yesterday awarded $260,000 to a black former casket salesman and $40,000 to his wife for the emotional and physical debilitation he claimed he suffered as the result of employment discrimination.
The claimant, Delma Lamar Reese II of Oxon Hill, contended that while he was a regional salesman for the Batesville, Ind., Casket Co. in 1976 he was prohibited from doing business with white funeral parlors, and that when he questioned this policy he was fired.
As a result, Reese's lawyers said, he suffered an ulcer, was diagnosed a paranoid and otherwise deteriorated to the point he was unable to work for the last three years. Reese, now 33, may never be able to work again, the lawyers added.
"What you have here is a man who went to hell in a handbasket," said Robert Fitzpatrick, one of Reese's attorneys, in an interview after the trial. "Before all this happened, he was an extremely social, funny guy, a lot of fun to be around. Now he has been described as having sucidial urges, as being homicidal. He just isn't the same person." a
During the last three years, Reese spent "between 20 and 25 percent of his waking time in doctor's offices," and incurred medical expenses of $25,000, Fitzpatrick said.
A six-member jury deliberated for six hours, following an 11-day trial, before returning the verdict. Afterwards, specialists in civil rights law here described the award as the largest ever to an individual as the result of a civil rights complaint based on employment discrimination.
Fitzpatrick and his colleague, Allen Eaton, filed suit for Reese under the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which provides for compensatory and in some cases punitive awards, for violations of the act. Reese's suit did not seek any specific amount. All of the jury award was specified for compensatory damages.
The casket company acknowledged during the trial that it assigned black sales representatives to black funerl homes, but maintained this was not any sort of discrimination, but rather an opportunity for blacks to make more money than they could by dealing with whites.
Herbert Snyder, an Indianapolis attorney representing the company, said yesterday that the assignments were "based on the evidence and opinions of marketing experts that their [the blacks'] probability of making sales was greater among blacks than among whites, that in fact they had a better opportunity to make a living."
Reese's attorneys maintained that during the nine months he worked for the company, he had to cover a larger area and travel more than white salesmen because of the limitations of his assignment. Testifying on Reese's behalf, a black Batesville salesman said that when he sold caskets to a white-run Louisiana funeral parlor, the account subsequently was taken away from him and he was denied the sales commission.
Attorneys for the company said during the trail that Reese was dismissed in 1976 as a result of poor performance. Reese's attorney claimed he was fired after he questiones the firm's assignment policies. "He didn't complain until after he was dismissed and had hired a lawyer," Snyder said yesterday. He said he was "naturally disappointed "by the verdict.
Fitzpatrick said he was delighted at the result "because it's not every day that you get $300,000 verdicts" and that Reese was "elated -- he considers himself finally vindicated." Fitzpatrick declined to allow his client to talk with a reporter.
Reese's wife, Nita, also a plaintiff, was awarded damages for her loss of companionship with her husband.
Snyder said yesterday no decision had been made whether to appeal the verdict. Fitzpatrick said he will file a motion to have the company pay Reese's attorney fees.
The case was heard in District Court here because Reese was recruited for a job through an employment agency in Washington and because his attorneys are here, Fitzpatrick said. The Batesville attorneys challenged this court's jurisdiction, but Judge Oliver Gasch upheld it.