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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Affirms $14M Jury Award in La. Labor Case

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A federal judge has granted final judgment following a $14 million jury award to five Indian workers for labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal International, a company that builds and refurbishes ships, found itself faced with a backlog of contracts and a diminished workforce, and began to look overseas for workers.

In all, Signal, its attorney and a recruiter rounded up 500 workers from India and brought them to live and work at Signal's Orange, Texas and Pascagoula, Miss. factories.

But at least 12 workers found the work and living conditions they encountered at the company's facility's to be far less than they were promised. They sued for false promises and imprisonment, and five of those lawsuits went to trial in January.

At the conclusion of trial, a nine-member jury awarded the five plaintiffs $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who presided over the six trial, granted final judgment last week. In her ruling, Judge Morgan found that Signal International's argument against final judgment -- principally that it will influence the trials on the remaining plaintiffs, and taint the appeals process -- is unfounded.

"Signal's premise is greatly exaggerated," Morgan's ruling said. "Unlike the Trial Plaintiffs, all of whom worked at Signal's facility in Mississippi, two of the non-trial plaintiffs -Kurian David and Muruganatham Kandhasamy - worked at Signal's facility in Texas. Thus, the evidence presented with respect to these non-trial Plaintiffs will differ substantially from the evidence presented by the Trial Plaintiffs."

Judge Morgan additionally said that a ruling by the 5th Circuit will help establish each party's relative chance of success on the remaining claims.

"By further defining the playing field, the parties will be in a better position to determine whether the costs of continued litigation are outweighed by the benefits of settlement," Morgan said.

The judge noted that trial for the remaining plaintiffs is set for September 2016, and that if the court does not enter final judgment now, plaintiffs will "be forced to wait an extraordinary amount of time to proceed - approximately 19 months."

Morgan additionally cited the "virtual certainty" that Signal will declare bankruptcy in the next month or so as reason to go ahead with final judgment.

In closing, the judge said the plaintiffs "have been waiting since the George W. Bush Administration for their day in court. After six long weeks of trial, the Trial Plaintiffs prevailed. Only the appellate courts can determine whether the jury verdict - and the rulings that preceded it - are legally sound.

"There is no just reason to delay this determination. Accordingly, the Court will enter final judgment. Signal has failed to prove this judgment should be stayed pending appeal," she added.

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