The Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial in a sexual-harassment case against DaimlerChrysler AG in which a Wayne County Circuit Court jury awarded $21 million plus interest in 1999.
In the lawsuit, filed in 1994, Linda Gilbert alleged that she was the target of pornographic photographs and cartoons, lewd jokes and obscene behavior from workers at the Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit.
Gilbert claimed that DaimlerChrysler failed to respond to her complaints and that she, as a recovering alcoholic, was driven by the harassment to resume drinking and became depressed and suicidal.
Gilbert was the first female millwright at the Jefferson plant.
DaimlerChrysler said it did investigate and warned Gilbert's co-workers. However, in most of the incidents, Gilbert refused to identify those she suspected of the harassment, the company said.
The Supreme Court split 4-3 over whether to grant a new trial or simply return the case to have the verdict reduced.
"To our knowledge, plaintiff's $21 million verdict is the largest amount ever awarded for a single-plaintiff sexual-harassment claim in the United States," Justice Robert Young wrote.
He was joined by Chief Justice Maura Corrigan and justices Clifford Taylor and Stephen Markman in finding that the plaintiff's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, made a "naked appeal to passion and prejudice ... to divert the jury from the facts" when he compared Gilbert to Holocaust victims and reminded jurors of the German ownership of DaimlerChrysler.
The three other justices -- Michael Cavanagh, Elizabeth Weaver and Marilyn Kelly --- agreed that the jury verdict was excessive and that Wayne Circuit Judge John Murphy should have considered reducing the award amount. But those justices did not find errors that would have warranted a new trial.