Henry's Turkey Service president Kenneth Henry leaves the courthouse while Sherri Brown, brother of one employee, looks on (Photo: AP)
A jury in Iowa has awarded 32 men a total of $240 million for decades of discrimination and abuse they suffered, while working for a company called Henry's Turkey Service.
Over a period of 40 years, Henry's sent hundreds of mentally disabled men from Texas to Iowa.
When they arrived, they were put to work in a meat-processing plant, earning 41 cents an hour, and housed in a 100-year-old school building with no central heating, fire safety violations, and a serious cockroach problem.
A room in the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa (Photo: AP)
The place was finally shut down in February 2009, after the Des Moines Register newspaper asked state officials about conditions in the building, and the 32 workers' case was brought to court through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Although the Iowa plant ran for decades, the court case was restricted by federal law to only the final two years of operation, limiting the nature of the claims that could be made and the number of workers who could ask for compensation.
Dr. Sue Gant, an expert witness who testified for the EEOC about what the disabled workers went through, said the judgment is "a groundbreaking advancement in that it demonstrates that the men have value that is equal to people without disabilities."
Each of the 32 men was awarded $2 million in damages, and $5.5 million in compensatory damages.
But Gant also said no amount of money will make up for what the men suffered: "These men were hidden away for decades, and for others' personal gain. These were humans who were treated like cattle - like company property, like just another source of income for the company."
Disability rights lawyer and former Harvard professor Steven Schwartz says he believes the ruling will change the way people with disabilities are treated in the U.S.
"It's stunning," he told the Des Moines Register. "It's amazing. I'm almost incredulous. I think this verdict sends an incredibly powerful message to jurors all over the country. And of course, it sends an equally powerful message to the people who cause this sort of harm."
The labour camp in Atalissa, Iowa (Photo: AP)
As well as paying the men almost nothing and housing them in an unsafe environment, Henry's Turkey Service deliberately avoided providing their employees with disability services, health insurance or access to Iowa Medicaid, according to EEOC lawyer Robert Canino.
This was to prevent anyone from the state finding out what was going on, Canino contends.
"If the eyes of Iowa saw what was happening, if the eyes of Iowa got inside that bunkhouse... If anybody ever caught on to that, the party was going to be over," he told jurors at the trial.
The jury brought back its verdict and the $240 million judgment after eight hours of deliberation, reducing Sherri Brown, the sister of one of the 32 men, to tears.
"I totally lost it," she said. "I wanted the jury to make a statement so that my brother Keith and all of those men would know that someone had heard them. And if this isn't a statement, I don't know what is."