A jury in St. Louis, Missouri has decided to award former Aaron's Inc. employee, Ashley Alford, $95 million in compensation after she was sexually harassed by her supervisor.
Unfortunately, the cap on damages in federal sexual harassment cases will reduce the sum to roughly $41.6 million, but for a case like this that's still pretty unheard of:
Attorneys for the plaintiff, Ashley Alford, of Fairview Heights, said the award of $15 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages could be a record.
"From what we can tell, this is the absolute largest sex harassment verdict in the country for an individual plaintiff," said lawyer David S. Ratner.
Alford, who is in her mid-20s, told a forensic psychologist that she'd had a "turbulent early life and struggled for years to make ends meet", so when she was hired at the furniture leasing company in 2005, she was optimistic that it would be a stable environment.
She could not have anticipated that this would be a part of the employment package:
Alford claimed that a sexual assault by her supervisor came after almost a year of escalating harassment in a workplace "rife with sexual jokes and lewd propositions."
The store's then-general manager, Richard Moore, began by making inappropriate comments, nicknamed her "Trixie" and "Trix," and pinched her, the suit says. It claims that he gave her clothes and chocolates, progressed to groping, and that he sneaked up behind her as she was sitting on the floor of the stockroom and hit her on the head with his penis in the fall of 2006.
On Oct. 12, 2006, the suit alleges, Moore threw Alford to the ground, lifted her shirt and masturbated over her as he held her down. He was arrested later that day and awaits trial in St. Clair County Circuit Court on a charge related to the accusation. His attorney did not respond to a message left Thursday.
He never returned to work. Alford stayed for roughly six more months.
According to the suit, Alford called a company harassment hotline prior to this incident in May 2006, but no one returned her call.
Even worse, Alford says she was approached by her attacker's supervisor who warned him to "watch his back" because of Alford's complaint. Additionally, Alford says she was denied a promotion because she filed the complaint.
Unsurprisingly, Aaron's Inc. is far from satisfied with the verdict:
"Aaron's is extremely disappointed with the jury's verdict and believes that the award does not accurately reflect the evidence that was presented in this case," said Chad Strickland, its vice president of associate resources in a prepared statement.
But Alford's attorneys scoffed at the comment, saying:
"This company has always denied responsibility and continues to deny its responsibility to its workers," said lawyer Judy Cates, who originally filed Alford's suit. She said she thought the jury "wanted to send a message to Aaron's to change the culture and environment for their employees."
The other bit of good news is that Alford is now married, has a child, and is working for another company while attending community college.
Money is hardly ever the goal in cases like these. It will never erase anything that happened or return a sense of well-being that is often lost after multiple traumatic events.
But in cases like these, when the company doesn't seem remotely ashamed of their actions, hitting them where it hurts most —sadly, their wallets— is a pretty good place to start.
Jury awards $95 million in Fairview Heights sex harassment suit [STLToday]