CHARLESTON – A jury on Tuesday awarded a Putnam County woman $300,000 for the emotional distress she suffered while working for the parent company of Gino's and Tudor's restaurants.
Anna Reynolds of Buffalo filed her lawsuit against Better Foods in 2006 after she claims she was physically and verbally abused by a supervisor.
The jury in the Kanawha County trial, which began Monday, awarded Reynolds, a former clerk for in Better Foods' corporate office, $100,000 in compensatory damages for the emotional distress, and $200,000 punitive damages.
"The jury heard a clear case, well presented with facts and rendered a fair and very reasonable and well supported verdict," said Harry Bell of Charleston's Bell & Bands, which represented Reynolds. "They even had asked as they began deliberations, if they could require, as relief, that this company which employs several hundred West Virginians and does approximately $20 million dollars a year in sales, to formulate and adopt an appropriate standard and policy to insure employees are treated fairly and with respect."
In her original complaint, Reynolds claimed her time at Better Foods was marred by harassment and that her right to request certain accommodations for her disabilities of fibrositis and fibromyalgia were ignored.
"Plaintiff was subjected to unwanted and uninitiated sexual advances, inappropriate touching, suggestions, innuendos, comments and threats of adverse employment actions by her co-worker and supervisory employee, Paul Niedbalski," the lawsuit says.
She also alleges that others in the company were aware of the harassment provided by Niedbalski.
"Supervisors, managers, officers and principals, including but not limited to its President Oshel Craigo, were aware of the sexual harassment of plaintiff by Paul Niedbalski," the complaint states.
Reynolds was actively employed at Better Foods from Dec. 8, 1996, to Feb. 26, 2004, and inactively employed until Aug. 2, 2004, when she was informed via letter that her employment had been terminated.
She had gone into the state of inactive employment after an incident on Feb. 25 when, she says, Niedbalski entered her office, locked the door behind him, began making unwanted advances toward her and threatened her with physical violence.
Reynolds says she was so upset that she lost consciousness and wound up with Major Anxiety Depression Disorder to the extent that she was unable to continue gainful employment.
Reynolds was represented by Andrew L. Paternostro and Arthur J. Chmiel of the Charleston law firm of Bell & Bands. Better Foods was represented by John H. Tinney Jr. and Sean W. Cook of the Charleston-based Tinney Law Firm.
Bell said the defense tried to dismiss the seriousness of the claim and that "the jury saw through it."
"Repeatedly during the trial, the defendant's senior management were caught in half-truths and changes in the testimony and at one point it came out that Better Foods had attempted to 'buy her off' by offering $5,000 but only if she immediately signed a release without the benefit of counsel," Bell said. "The company well knew this senior manager was a serious problem yet did nothing of substance to address the problem."
Bell praised the jury and his team of attorneys.
"The jury was attentive throughout and justice was done," he said. "The plaintiff will be filing a petition seeking an award of attorney's fees and costs before the court also. The defense has no one to blame but themselves as both a mediator and the court suggested they settle the case and avoid this exposure and expense, but they zealously tried to wear down the plaintiff.
"Bell & Bands is a law firm which actually is willing to try cases to best protect our clients and we have faith in the constitutional right to trial by jury and we respect and recognize the American civil justice system as the best on the earth, we were pleased with the outcome as was our client. The Bell & Bands attorneys who tried the case, Andy Paternostro and Art Chmiel, are extraordinary well skilled and did a superb job presenting the case to this attentive jury."