Florida jury awards $17 million to abused migrant female farm workers

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 10, 2015 7:49 PM

By David Adams

MIAMI (Reuters) - A federal jury awarded almost $17.5 million to five former female employees of a South Florida farm who said they were either raped and sexually harassed at a vegetable packing plant, their lawyer and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said on Thursday.

Three men, including two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms, near Fort Myers in southwest Florida, were accused of sexual harassment in 2011 and 2012 against the women in coolers and an office trailer at the packing house, including rape, groping, kissing and threats they would be fired if they refused to have sex with supervisors, according to the legal complaint brought against Moreno Farms.

However, the women are unlikely to receive a penny as the packing house closed after the case was brought and the men were never arrested, said a lawyer for the women, Victoria Mesa-Estrada.

"It's more of a symbolic victory," Mesa-Estrada said. "The women knew that when the case was brought. But for them it was a question of justice."

Four of the women attended the two-day trial in Miami. "They were in tears when the verdict was read," said Mesa-Estrada.

Reuters does not identify rape victims.

The accused men did not appear in court nor was the company represented by an attorney during the trial. Reuters was unable to reach any of the accused men or Moreno Farms or their lawyers.

The women, three from Mexico, and two from Central America, were fired for resisting the three men, identified as Oscar and Omar Moreno, and packing line supervisor Javier Garcia, according to the complaint.

Three of the women were raped and two escaped attempted rape, according to the legal complaint. One woman was raped three times and one was raped by both brothers at the same time.

The women will be granted special U visas for victims of crime who assist law enforcement in prosecuting cases, said Mesa-Estrada.

The women originally went to the police in Hendry County a few weeks after the abuse but prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to build a case against the men, said Mesa-Estrada.

"There was no real effort to investigate," she said.

(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)