NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal jury on Wednesday awarded $14.1 million to five Indian guest workers who claimed they were defrauded and made to live in squalid conditions after being lured to work for an Alabama-based marine and fabrication company following Hurricane Katrina.
The jury issued its verdict against Mobile, Alabama-based Signal International LLC and its associates in a civil trial overseen by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. More than 200 other workers' claims are pending against the company, lawyers said. The plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages.
The suit was filed in 2008, charging that Signal used the federal government's H-2B guest-worker program to recruit Indians to work as welders and pipefitters at its facilities in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas.
The suit alleged Signal falsely promised to help the workers apply for and receive green cards. But the plaintiffs claimed they were the victims of a labor-trafficking scheme by Signal, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labor recruiter. Signal faces paying $12 million of the damages, plaintiffs lawyers said.
"In short, these workers were sold a bill of goods," said Alan Howard, a lawyer for Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights group that represented the Indian workers. "They were victimized and exploited and really taken advantage of."
The plaintiffs claim they were charged $10,000 per person by recruiters who gave them false promises that they would be able to get green cards and obtain permanent residency in the United States. Based on those promises, the suit claims Indian workers went into debt to get the jobs for Signal and in some cases sold homes and gave up jobs in India before leaving for the Gulf Coast.
Once they arrived, the guest workers claimed they were told they were going to get 10-month work permits. The suit also accused Signal of housing the workers in squalid conditions and forcing them to pay $1,050 each a month to stay in overcrowded and dirty trailers.
Signal said in a statement that it "strongly disagrees" with Wednesday's verdict and is considering an appeal.
Howard said the cases of about 230 other workers are pending against Signal. An attempt to certify the Indian workers under a class-action suit was rejected by a federal judge.
Signal hired about 500 workers to work at its facilities after Katrina. The company said it was facing a shortage of skilled workers following the 2005 hurricane and that it paid the Indian workers $18 an hour, the same as American workers would have received for the same jobs.
Plaintiffs' lawyers contended that American workers, due to the shortage of skilled laborers, commanded much higher wages and that Signal profited greatly from the use of the Indian workers.
The suits are being brought under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, a federal law passed in 2003 to protect people from traffickers.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also suing Signal. That trial is slated to start on June 1 in New Orleans.
Howard said it was far from clear when the Indian workers might see any compensation. He said Signal has suggested it might file for bankruptcy.
A spokeswoman for the company said she could not comment on that issue but would pass it to others for their consideration.