WORKPLACE HARASSMENT : MONETARY AWARDS DRIVE FIRMS TO ACT.
Groping and grabbing in the workplace is as common today as it was before Anita Hill brought sexual harassment to the forefront.
But the difference is what's at stake.
Today, people claiming they've been harassed are going to court and winning huge jury awards at a record pace. Many others are settling lawsuits with employers, which fear trials could be more costly for their bottom lines and public images.
Five years ago, plaintiffs were limited to monetary awards for wages lost. But a 1991 amendment to the Civil Rights Act changed that, allowing juries to award money to punish employers for their tolerance of sexual harassment and to compensate employees for pain and suffering.
That change lured personal injury lawyers into the action. Employment lawyers who had typically handled harassment cases say these trial lawyers who get big bucks for accident victims want to do the same for people who believe they've been harassed.
``Personal injury lawyers by nature seek compensation for wrongdoing,'' said Elizabeth du Fresne, a longtime employment lawyer with Steel Hector & Davis in Miami. ``What you find now is the emphasis is on a monetary award. Labor lawyers were problem solvers. Before, the emphasis was on straightening out the wrongdoing.''
The forms of sexual harassment recognized by the courts range from the most blatant - someone who wants a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion, raise or other benefit - to a hostile work environment, such as crude jokes or photos. A company can be found liable even if a vendor or customer commits these types of acts.
With more employees aware of their rights and more lawyers eager to represent them, companies of all sizes are vulnerable to suits. So are government agencies.
Employers as large as Blockbuster Entertainment and as small as the 15-person Medex Services in Fort Lauderdale have paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements or jury awards over their roles in sexual harassment cases. Connie Holmes, a Wal-Mart worker in Tampa, recently obtained a $2 million award for management's failure to investigate and act on her claims of sexual harassment. And Walt Disney World and its administrative agency just settled a multimillion-dollar sexual harassment lawsuit filed by three female firefighters.
A single-plaintiff sexual harassment case can cost a company at least $150,000 to defend, and the average verdict in favor of an employee is $350,000, de Fresne said.
``For a small business that may represent their profit for the year,'' she said.
How high can the cost go? There's a trend toward bringing harassment charges in conjunction with state common law tort claims such as infliction of emotional distress or assault and battery. Amounts juries can award in those claims are unlimited.
It's the small businesses that are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment lawsuits, lawyers say.
``Lots of times I get companies that say, we're family here,'' said Anne-Marie Estevez, a labor and employment lawyer at Steel Hector & Davis. ``But I represented an employer in a case where it was a cousin who brought the first charge and got three other women to bring the rest.'' Kronengold at Eckerd Seamans said small companies often ignore the issue of sexual harassment until a problem crops up.