A lawyer for four black men suing Walgreen Co. because they say a clerk referred to them using a racial slur urged a jury on Tuesday to award them at least $2.5 million to send a signal that such discrimination won't be tolerated.
The drug store chain violated its own policies in supervising its workers and dealing with claims of racial discrimination, and failed to adequately investigate the complaint "other than to try to sweep it under the rug," said Ian Silverberg, a Reno lawyer representing the four Texas men.
"You're going to learn there was no investigation, just an attempt to protect the company in case they were sued," he said as the civil trial opened in Washoe County District Court before Judge Janet Berry.
"The evidence you will hear will justify a verdict of at least $2.5 million because of what Walgreens did, what they knew and what they didn't do after the fact," Silverberg said.
"We're also going to ask you to impose damages to punish Walgreens," he told the jury. "The evidence will show this is a different type of harm. It will show that if the value you place on that harm is not high, it will keep on happening."
The Houston men said that after they complained about the quality of a photograph processed at the Reno store in February 2003, the clerk shouted a racial slur, slammed a door and refused service.
The photo lab clerk, Richard Scott McCord, now 28, testified Tuesday that he never made the offensive remark and one of the lawyers representing the company said that no one other than the plaintiffs claims to have heard it.
Clark Vellis, a Reno lawyer for Walgreens, also said one of the plaintiffs used an ethnic slur to describe Hispanics in a pretrial deposition.
"These are the people who are going to ask you for $2.5 million in damages," Vellis said.
"At the end of the day, what happened here was a bad customer service situation. There is absolutely no proof whatsoever the `N-word' was used," he said. "There was no damage from this."
The lawsuit does not specify how much the men are seeking. The
lead plaintiff, Bruce Johnson, has said each of the men was seeking
$2.5 million, although Silverberg suggested in court they were seeking $2.5 million cumulatively, plus unspecified punitive damages.
Both lawyers made references to the sensitive nature of the case, in which some prospective jurors were questioned privately Monday in the judge's chambers to determine whether they could put aside any racial prejudice or biases and remain impartial.
Silverberg said McCord already appeared to be agitated because he had been busy and was two hours late for his lunch break. When Johnson complained about the quality of the photos, the clerk informed him Walgreens policy was to refund money only if the problem was in the processing, Silverberg said.
Eventually, Silverberg said, McCord "gets mad, slams his hand down and says (to another worker) `You go help those niggers. I'm going home."'
Silverberg then told the jury, "That's the last time you will hear me say that word."
"I'll just use `N-word' because that's my own comfort level," he said.
McCord, who worked at Walgreens for more than three years before
he said he quit his job there in late 2005 on good terms, testified he never made any racial statements to the men. He said he would have admitted to doing so "a long time ago if I said it."
Why? "To get this over with," he answered.
McCord earlier described the incident as a "volatile situation." He said Johnson talked to him in a condescending fashion and that he was embarrassed by the confrontation because he felt Johnson was "questioning whether I knew my job."
McCord said he was more "flustered" than "angry." He agreed he had slammed a door but denied slamming his hands on the counter.
"Looking back at it, I think it was a tense situation and all parties involved were uncomfortable," he said.
Emily Whitehead, who was supervising the clerk as assistant manager, testified she never heard McCord utter the slur.
In a written report to her supervisor she said McCord had been rude, but in court Tuesday she said Johnson also had been "antagonistic" and had ridiculed McCord's poor grammar.
Whitehead said use of the `N-word' never came up in her discussion with Johnson and the other men immediately after the incident, but that she was aware they felt discriminated against.
"I thought it was blown out of proportion," she said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)