At first, Medro Johnson tried to shrug it off.
The African American employee of Sears Home Improvement Products in Natomas was at an August 2008 company barbecue with his family, court records say. A co-worker walked up and blurted a racial slur, issued with a "slave dialect."
"Medro calls me Masta," co-worker Paul St. Hilaire said, according to court records.
Then St. Hilaire started laughing.
Johnson, an Elk Grove resident and a descendant of slaves, would later testify in court that he was humiliated to be referred to as a slave in front of his wife and two daughters.
Last Friday, after a one-month trial and more than eight hours of deliberation, a Sacramento Superior Court jury gave Johnson the last laugh.
The panel awarded him $5.2 million in damages, including $2.2 million to compensate for lost earnings, pain and suffering.
The other $3 million was for punitive damages, an award granted after the jury found that Sears' policymakers and managers conducted themselves "with malice, oppression or fraud" for failing to investigate or to act on Johnson's complaints about the slur and other racist acts.
The motivation for ignoring the problem?
Christopher Whelan, Johnson's attorney in the race harassment-retaliation case, said the evidence showed the company did not want to take action against St. Hilaire, one of its top sales producers nationally.
"The message for Sears is that it just can't ignore the law, no matter how much money the harasser earns for them," said Whelan. "They subjected Medro to very serious risks and fear of retaliation.
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