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Judge says Pizza Hut is responsible for employees' racial harassment.

Pizza Hut of America, Inc., settled a lawsuit after a federal judge found that restaurant employees' discourteous service to an African American family was racially motivated and that the company was liable under the Illinois Hate Crimes Act of 1995.

The late December settlement comes several months after U.S. District Judge William Hart denied Pizza Hut's summary judgment motion. (McCaleb v. Pizza Hut of America, Inc., 28 F.Supp. 2d 1043 (1998).)

Attorneys representing Pizza Hut argued that the hate crimes statute applies only to real people and not corporations. But Hart wrote, "when the word `person' is used in a statute, it is construed as applying to corporations and bodies politic as well, unless the context, language, or legislative history indicates otherwise."

The plaintiffs' attorney, Edward Voci of Chicago, said the judge's precedent-setting ruling should have an impact on other companies.

"I think corporations are going to be more vigilant about their majority employees' treatment of minority fellow workers and customers because they are now responsible for the full scope of their employees's actions," Voci said.

The issue arose after Voci's clients--Andrea McCaleb; her mother, Mary Ann Burton; and their extended family--were in Godfrey, Illinois, for a family reunion in July 1995. Between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on July 2, Burton called the Pizza Hut and ordered six pizzas. Since it was almost closing time, she asked the employee if they could eat in the restaurant. The employee checked with someone else and told Burton she could.

Later, when Burton and her family entered the restaurant, an employee shouted an epithet and said he'd refuse to serve them because of their race. Other employees began to harass the group by vacuuming under their table, flicking the lights on and off, and failing to set the table, the court said.

At one point, the McCalebs and Burtons asked for drinks and were denied service. Only moments before, they had watched a white couple get drinks. When the family left, an employee threatened them with a broom handle in the restaurant's parking lot, Voci said.

The lawsuit alleged violations of both federal and state civil rights laws. McCaleb's suit said the employees failed to provide them with equal service as required under U.S.C. [sections] 1981.

Voci said the Illinois hate crimes statute applies because his clients were afraid they would be attacked when the employee threatened the group with a broom handle. Under the civil portion of the act, victims can file a suit "seeking damages, injunction, or any other appropriate relief" independent of any criminal prosecution.

Pizza Hut attorneys argued the McCaleb party was not denied service, nor was any discrimination committed.

Hart, however, wrote, "[The] defendant failed to provide plaintiffs the full benefits of the contract in that they failed to provide them with the proper utensils with which to eat their pizza and created a disturbing atmosphere in which to eat.

"Given the derogatory references to plaintiffs' race both when they arrived and when they left, as well as the more favorable treatment accorded the whites that were dining at the restaurant, it can be inferred that the treatment received by plaintiffs was racially motivated."

Pizza Hut maintains that the McCalebs ordered pizza for carry out. "we concluded there was absolutely no racial or discriminatory behavior involved, but our employees should have provided better customer service in this situation to customers who wanted to continue eating in the restaurant," a Pizza Hut statement said.

The national pizza restaurant chain said that the McCaleb's experience was an isolated incident and that the company has a strict policy prohibiting harassment or discrimination.

The Pizza Hut statement said, "We routinely train our employees to treat our customers and employees fairly regardless of their sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, creed, or national origin. Violations of these policies are not' tolerated, and we take this very seriously."
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Association for Justice
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Author:Gelhaus, Lisa
Publication:Trial
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:651
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