San Francisco Chronicle Saturday, April 27, 1996
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Safeway Loses Big In Sex Harass Suit
Victim awarded $3.45 million
By Michael Taylor
Chronicle Staff Writer
A San Francisco jury awarded a near-record $3.45 million yesterday to a woman who said she was sexually harassed by a former Safeway delicatessen manager.
The Superior Court jury of nine women and three men believed that former Safeway manager William Gutierrez had harassed Linda Atkins in the fall of 1992, said Alan Exelrod, one of Atkins' attorneys.
"The jury found that Safeway should have known about this," Exelrod said, "and failed to take steps."
After a three-week trial, the jury awarded $450,000 in compensatory and general damages, and $3 million in punitive damages. The jurors deliberated for two days on the compensatory and general damages, but spent less than two hours before reaching their decision on punitive damages.
A top Safeway official said the supermarket chain was "deeply disappointed" with the verdict and plans to appeal.
The award was said by legal experts to be one of the largest a jury has ever given to a single plaintiff in a sexual harassment case. In September 1994, another San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded a legal secretary $7.1 million in a sexual harassment case, but a judge later reduced that to $3.5 million.
The Safeway case began when Atkins was an assistant delicatessen manager at Safeway's Mill Valley store, Exelrod said.
"The first time," Exelrod said, explaining the nature of the harassment, "Gutierrez took her (Atkins) hand and put it on his penis. The second time, he tried to grab her and kiss her. This all took place in a back room."
Exelrod said Gutierrez, while he was with Safeway, had displayed a pattern of sexual and other forms of harassment.
"Before our client," Exelrod said, "he forced a woman to orally copulate him, and there were a number of victims before that. . . . Eventually, he was fired."
Exelrod and his co-counsel, Philip Kay, filed their case in January 1994. The case was heard before superior court Judge Richard Figone.
Safeway spokeswoman Melissa Plaisance, senior vice president for finance and public affairs, said the firm, which has 1,057 stores worldwide and is one of the world's largest grocery chains, "is deeply disappointed by the verdict in this case. We believe the jury's findings are unsupported and incorrect as a matter of law, and we plan to appeal." Plaisance said the firm may also try to have the jury award reduced.
She said Gutierrez is "no longer an employee of Safeway," but would not elaborate on whether he was fired. Plaisance also said Safeway could not "substantiate" Atkins' claims, but "we have terminated people where we have been able to substantiate" complaints of sexual harassment.
Atkins left Safeway in early 1993 and now works for a market on the Peninsula. Exelrod said he and his client are extremely pleased with the jury's decision. "She felt great about the verdict," he said. "It has been a tough and long fight."