RENO, Nevada – A jury Tuesday cleared Walgreen Co. of racial discrimination alleged in a $2.5 million civil lawsuit brought by four black men who say they were wronged in a confrontation at a Reno drug store four years ago.
The six-woman, two-man jury in Washoe County District Court deliberated less than an hour after listening to seven days of testimony.
The unanimous verdict capped a dramatic trial that saw the judge repeatedly admonish both legal teams and the lead plaintiff, Bruce Johnson, 44, of Houston, Texas, taken from the courthouse by ambulance last week when he suffered an asthma attack after aggressive cross-examination.
In their lawsuit, the four men claimed that a photo lab clerk shouted a racial slur, slammed a door and denied them service after they complained about the quality of their photographs at the downtown Reno store in February 2003.
Walgreens' lawyers acknowledged the clerk slammed a door and walked off the job but denied the clerk uttered the a racial slur and maintained the incident was a case of poor customer service absent any racial bias.
"Obviously, we're pleased with the verdict," said Howard Rosenblum, a lawyer for Walgreens.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said they would appeal the case to the Nevada Supreme Court.
"We're not done," Ian Silverberg told The Associated Press. He said the appeal would challenge some rulings "that kept out a lot of information that I think should have gone to the jury about what Walgreens knew" about the clerk accused of the misconduct.
"It was wrong for Walgreens to treat these men differently for one reason and one reason only — the color of their skin," Silverberg said.
"These men stood up against the 14th largest company in the U.S. for four years to let Walgreens know they were not going to take it," he told the jury.
But a lawyer for the company, Clark Vellis, said the four men were "professional victims" looking to "turn justice into money." He urged the jurors to base their verdict on facts, "not sympathy or inflammatory statements about the Ku Klux Klan."
"Every time somebody has a bad experience, you can't sue. Every time somebody does something you don't like, you can't sue and try to turn it into money," Vellis said in his closing argument.
Judge Janet Berry told the jury before they began deliberations that in order to award damages to the men they must prove they suffered "monetarily compensable physical or emotional injuries" as a result of Walgreens engaging in "extreme and outrageous conduct considered in a civilized society to be atrocious and utterly intolerable."
That conduct does not include such things as insults, threats, indignation or petty trivialities, she said.
Johnson, a gospel singer, said pursuit of justice in the case became his calling and he launched a Web site, stopalldiscrimination.com, to help others facing a similar plight.
After the incident, the company refused the Texas men's demand to fire the clerk, Richard Scott McCord, and instead issued a reprimand.