MIDDLESEX, Mass. (Legal Newsline) – In an unusual measure, punitive damages were awarded in a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit against a car dealership for $500,000.
The lawsuit filed by Emma Gyulakian against Lexus of Watertown in Massachusetts alleged her supervisor sexually harassed her repeatedly and that the company made very little attempt to investigate the claims.
Gyulakian said her supervisor commented on a daily basis about her breasts, touched her butt and made sexual innuendos along with trying to throw coins down her shirt. Several of her co-workers in the same department testified to the allegations.
In the suit, it was alleged that Gyulakian complained to the assistant general sales manager about the supervisor but no action was taken even though the manager saw the actions firsthand. Gyulakian took her complaints higher to senior management, after which she was terminated because of her alleged poor relationship with her co-workers. Lexus did make an effort to investigate her claims but only interviewed the supervisor in question.
The court found that punitive damages were allowable because the company failed to investigate the sexual harassment complaint. It awarded Gyulakian $500,000 in damages for the claim – an unusual move in a sexual harassment case, which Richard D. Glovsky, partner at Locke Lord LLP told Legal News Line, was the exception rather than the rule.
“It’s not that they’re never rewarded but it’s an unusual case when they are,” he said.
As to why Gyulakian received a punitives award, Glovsky said, “Because the conduct of Lexus was egregious ... no one really did anything about it until after she was let go. When [Lexus] did the investigation all they did was talk to one person. They didn’t take it seriously.”
To prove that punitive damages are necessary in a sexual harassment case, a plaintiff must show proof the behavior was egregious.
“In this case not only was the harassment egregious, the manner which the investigation was handled was egregious,” Glovsky said. “They essentially ignored the plaintiff’s complaints and then when they investigated it, they did a very modest investigation. It shows that they just weren’t taking what she complained about seriously.”
The amount of the $500,000 award may also have been spurned by Lexus’ ability to pay as a high-end dealership with solid financial capabilities.
“The ability of the company to pay is a factor in determining how much punitive damages will be,” Glovsky said. “That is supposed to be one of the standards. The more resources the company has, the more punitive damages they have to pay.”