A jury Tuesday cleared Walgreen Co. of racial discrimination alleged in a $2.5 million civil lawsuit brought by four black Texas men who say they were wronged in a confrontation at a Reno drug store four years ago.
The six-woman, two-man jury in Washoe County District Court deliberated less than an hour after listening to seven days of testimony.
The unanimous verdict capped a dramatic trial that saw the judge
repeatedly admonish both legal teams and the lead plaintiff, Bruce
Johnson, 44, of Houston, taken from the courthouse by ambulance last week when he suffered an asthma attack after aggressive cross-examination.
In their lawsuit, the four men claimed that a photo lab clerk shouted a racial slur, slammed a door and denied them service after they complained about the quality of their photographs at the downtown Reno store in February 2003.
Walgreens' lawyers acknowledged the clerk slammed a door and
walked off the job but denied the clerk uttered the n-word and
maintained the incident was a case of poor customer service absent
any racial bias.
"Obviously, we're pleased with the verdict," said Howard Rosenblum, a lawyer for Walgreens.
"We take allegations such as this very seriously," he said. "Walgreens has said all along we don't tolerate discrimination of any sort. ... It's good to see the system work."
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said they would appeal the case to the Nevada Supreme Court.
"We're not done," Ian Silverberg told The Associated Press. He said the appeal would challenge some rulings "that kept out a lot of information that I think should have gone to the jury about what Walgreens knew" about the clerk accused of the misconduct.
"I kind of feel like we went into court with a couple of hands tied behind our back," he said.
Silverberg said in closing arguments Tuesday morning that the men deserved millions but would accept just $1 as justice served.
"It was wrong for Walgreens to treat these men differently for one reason and one reason only - the color of their skin," Silverberg said.
"These men stood up against the 14th largest company in the U.S. for four years to let Walgreens know they were not going to take it," he told the jury. "Please let Walgreens know there is no more harmful word with such history and meaning for an entire group of people."
But a lawyer for the company, Clark Vellis, said the four men were "professional victims" looking to "turn justice into money." He urged the jurors to base their verdict on facts, "not sympathy or inflammatory statements about the Ku Klux Klan."
"Every time somebody has a bad experience, you can't sue. Every time somebody does something you don't like, you can't sue and try to turn it into money," Vellis said in his closing argument.
Judge Janet Berry told the jury before they began deliberations about 1:30 p.m. that in order to award damages to the men they must prove they suffered "monetarily compensable physical or emotional injuries" as a result of Walgreens engaging in "extreme and outrageous conduct considered in a civilized society to be atrocious and utterly intolerable."
That conduct does not include such things as insults, threats, indignation or petty trivialities, she said.
Johnson, a gospel singer, said pursuit of justice in the case became his calling and he launched a Web site, stopalldiscrimination.com, to help others facing a similar plight.
After the incident, the company refused the Texas men's demand to fire the clerk, Richard Scott McCord, and instead issued a reprimand.
"The fact the n-word was used makes it more clear that race is the reason Mr. McCord acted the way he did. But even without that slur, there's still a violation," Silverberg said.
"Even if he didn't use the n-word, can you believe keeping someone on in a customer service business after behaving the way he did?" he asked.
Silverberg told the jury it may be "easy to look at the plaintiffs and say they are lying ... they want money."
"But in our system, money equals justice. There's nothing else you can do. You can't tell Walgreens they need to do a better job training employees," he said.
Vellis said the men were merely trying to profit off the ordeal.
"Truth equals justice, not money, unless you are here looking for money, and that's what they are doing," Vellis said.
"When justice equals money, you get people known as professional victims," he said. "These are professional victims who are looking to turn justice into money."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)