"HORRIFIC CONDITIONS": More than two dozen blacks accused Liebherr-America of many racial misdeeds


November 17, 2005

NEWPORT NEWS -- A German-owned company has paid $4 million to settle a racial discrimination complaint brought by 26 black employees at its Newport News truck plant, a civil rights activist who helped spearhead the case said.

Liebherr-America, which operates a large factory off of Aberdeen Road, agreed to the out-of-court settlement before the case went to trial, said Brenda Coles, a former vice president of the Newport News division of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"The conditions were just horrific conditions for these plaintiffs to work in, or anyone to work in," Coles said. "We had to let other companies know that if you discriminate against another race, this can happen to you."

Though there have been bigger racial discrimination settlements nationally, the case appears to rank at or near the top of known racial discrimination settlements in Virginia, said Paul Fletcher, the editor of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, which tracks such cases.

Liebherr-America employs about 360 people in its plant at Copeland Industrial Park, near the Hampton-Newport News city line. It makes large trucks - some with tires as high as eight feet tall - for mining and heavy industrial uses.

The workers contended in their lawsuit that they were subjected to hostile comments - from both white co-workers and managers - because of their race and that the company paid them less than less-qualified white workers.

Liebherr countered in its briefs that the company consistently took proper steps to address and correct any problems when they learned of them. But it said in its briefs that employees didn't always report the problems - contending that workers' depositions backed them up on that point.

Fifteen of the 26 plaintiffs who could be located either did not return phone calls or said they had no comment on the case, other than some of them saying it had been resolved. Their attorney, Joshua Friedman, of New York, also declined to talk about it.

Liebherr-America officials, including president Ronald E. Jacobson and fabrication manager Herbert Gierlinger, also did not comment on the settlement. William E. Rachels and Timothy McConville, of the Norfolk firm of Willcox & Savage, said they had no comment other than to say the case has been resolved.

Coles, who knew one of the initial plaintiffs in the case and helped organize it for more than two years before being ordered off by Freidman, has kept in touch with several of the plaintiffs. Seven of them, she said, told her about the $4 million dollar amount. Each of the 26 plaintiffs, Coles said, got varied payouts. Assuming the typical attorney's fee of 33 percent, that means the plaintiffs took home an average of $103,000 before taxes. The plaintiffs were not allowed to discuss the case under the terms of the deal.

"Everything they had about it was to be destroyed as if this case never happened," she said.

The case did indeed happen - as more than 7,000 pages of documents, in 10 binders, at U.S. District Court in Norfolk can attest.

The settlement agreement was reached in April, following three days of mediation, Coles said. The case was officially closed in June.

One f the suit's allegations had asserted that some white workers, with the knowledge of management, would pass a key to each other for an unmarked bathroom they never told another black employee about. The black employee said in a deposition, however, that he was never actually told the bathroom was for whites only. He also said he never asked to use the key, saying he "didn't want trouble."

The suit abounds with numerous assertions maintaining that the company didn't treat the pervasive use of racial epithets by some white employees as a serious concern.

One contention, for example, was that a white Liebherr supervisor, when told by a black employee about another white employee's use of racial epithet, said he would fine the white employee $1 every time he used one - treating the matter as a joke. The company said in a brief that the $1 fine was for profanity, not racial slurs.

On another occasion, the lawsuit contended that in October 1997, a white welder walked past three black welders and held a full-sized noose over their heads. The black employees said they reported the incident to Liebherr's fabrication manager, Herbert Gierlinger, who took no disciplinary action.

Gierlinger said in a deposition that an employee did have a noose, and that a black worker had complained about it. But he said he reprimanded the white employee and threatened to fire him if he did it again. He said in the deposition that it never happened again.

The suit also asserted that black employees at Liebherr were paid less than whites for the same work, and whites were consistently treated better when it came to work conditions, drug testing, the breaks they were afforded, the time off they were granted and the type of equipment they used.

While declining to talk about the settlement or address the specific allegations in the suit, Liebherr America said it has been a major asset to Hampton Roads for 35 years and has $27 million worth of capital invested here.

It issued the following statement Wednesday afternoon:

"Liebherr is committed to equal employment opportunity, and the diversity of our workforce reflects that commitment. Our employment decisions are based on merit regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability.

"Liebherr's policy applies to all aspects of employment and benefits. The company's actions to implement this policy include diversity training, significant recruitment efforts targeted to minorities, and administration of complaint procedures, to prevent discrimination and harassment."

But Coles said Liebherr was not affected until it was "hit in the pocketbook."

"Unfortunately that's the only way change comes about ... But this case was never about winning money. It was about fighting for the other people that are coming in behind us."

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