Golden Litigation

HOW much money does it take to punish powerful corporations in court?

By the calculations of a jury in San Francisco, a staggering $7.1 million. That's the amount the panel awarded last week to a former secretary who said she had been sexually harassed by a partner at Baker & McKenzie, the world's biggest law firm.

Legal experts say the award, reportedly the largest ever in a sexual harassment case, sends a clear message that employers must respond swiftly to such complaints, even when they are brought against powerful and highly valuable bosses. In the San Francisco case, Rena Weeks, a secretary who worked for the firm less than three months, charged that Martin Greenstein fondled her and made crude remarks. Six other female employees lodged similar complaints against him. The firm plans to appeal.

Sexual harassment remains a serious workplace issue. In this, as in other areas of injustice, ``sending a message'' may be a legitimate part of a jury's decision in determining punitive damages. But wouldn't Ms. Weeks' original demand - $3.5 million - have sent a suitably stern message, not only to Baker & McKenzie but to other law firms and businesses?

Elsewhere in this season of mega-suits, a jury in Albuquerque last month awarded $2.9 million to a woman who sued McDonald's for burns she received from a cup of coffee that spilled on her legs. One juror defended the decision on grounds that McDonald's showed ``callous disregard'' for customers' safety by refusing to lower the temperature of its coffee after settling several similar suits out of court.

In other high-profile cases, actor Jackie Mason is suing five organizations that select Tony Awards nominees for failing to nominate his one-man show. Actress Faye Dunaway is suing composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for $6 million after he dismissed her from his new musical, ``Sunset Boulevard,'' on grounds that her singing was inadequate.

America continues to be a litigious society. But where is the point at which excessive awards backfire? Already opinion polls show the public firmly on the side of McDonald's, with many respondents expressing outrage over the verdict.

There may be cases where huge punitive damages are appropriate. Yet whether justice is measured in length of prison sentence for an offender or in dollars awarded a victim, the old saying applies: Let the punishment fit the crime.

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