Although a jury recently reached a $10.5 million disability discrimination verdict against Norfolk Southern Railway, the company ended up with a final judgment of only $396,521 thanks to a federal law that limits the amount of damages that may be awarded.

Warren Whitted, a former Norfolk Southern road conductor, filed suit against the company in August 2013 alleging the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by discriminating against him and refusing to accommodate him. Whitted alleged the company refused to accommodate his return to work following an accident, even though his doctor had given him a medical release. A federal jury agreed, awarding him $8 million in punitive damages and $2.5 million in emotional pain and mental anguish. The jury also awarded him over $96,000 in lost wages. The judge in the case, however, vacated the jury’s award the same day.

For intentional discrimination claims under Title VII and the ADA, a plaintiff may be entitled to recover compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to back pay and front pay. But the recovery for compensatory and punitive damages is not unlimited. A federal statute caps the combined value of compensatory and punitive damages recoverable under Title VII or the ADA based on the size of the employer.[1] The four caps are:

  • $50,000 for employers with 15-100 employees;
  • $100,000 for employers with 101-200 employees;
  • $200,000 for employers with 201-500 employees; and
  • $300,000 for employers with 501 or more employees.

The damage caps are applied to each aggrieved party (each plaintiff) in a case. In other words, in a case with 3 plaintiffs, the $300,000 cap will apply 3 times and the employer-defendant may be required to pay a total of $900,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

These statutory caps have saved companies, like Norfolk Southern, from far more substantial jury verdicts in Title VII and ADA discrimination cases. After the judge in the Norfolk Southern case vacated the jury’s award, the parties stipulated that punitive and compensatory damages equaled $300,000, plus the $96,500 in lost wages. Although Norfolk Southern was still on the hook for almost $400,000, this was a far cry from the $10.5 million awarded by the jury.

The case is Whitted v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, Inc., Case No. 2:13-cv-01550 (N.D. Alabama).

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b).