$14 million victory for 5 plaintiffs in landmark labor trafficking case

A Federal jury in New Orleans returned a verdict in the first of numerous labor trafficking cases against a global construction company with major operations in the United States, Signal International, Inc., and several co-defendants. The jury awarded damages against every defendant regarding every claim asserted by the 5 plaintiffs. The jury also awarded punitive damages concerning every claim for which punitive damages are available. This resounding victory against the employer, several labor brokers, and a lawyer will undoubtedly reverberate across the country and, indeed, around the world for some time.

The litigation began as a class action on behalf of nearly 600 welders and pipefitters from India. When plaintiffs did not satisfy the increasingly difficult test for obtaining class action certification in Federal court, the litigation divided into 12 smaller cases. Although involving different plaintiffs and varying legal claims, the core factual allegations are essentially the same in every case. All of the lawsuits against Signal International and the employer’s co-defendants concern human trafficking, forced labor, and related wage claims. In other words, the defendants reportedly violated core employment law and the civil rights of immigrant construction workers. As illustrated by the case just decided, David v. Signal International, Inc., the conduct has reportedly also included serious retaliation.

In finding for the plaintiffs in the first of a dozen similar labor trafficking cases, the jury concluded that the employer lured the construction workers from India under false pretenses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. In addition, the jury found that the employer forced the plaintiffs to live in squalid “man camps” and under around-the-clock guard. In its defense, the employer alleged that the security force was somehow for the employees’ benefit and, moreover, that the employer provided the immigrant construction workers with transportation to and from Walmart and church. Ultimately, the jury rejected the employer’s rationales for its conduct, including that the employer was the victim of its co-defendants’ alleged deception. This absolute victory, after years of scorched-earth litigation, should serve as an important lesson and a sobering reminder to other employers who may contemplate running afoul of fundamental workplace rights.