High court cuts damage award in Era discrimination case

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's Supreme Court has reduced a punitive damage award against Era Aviation for discriminating against a woman pilot and later retaliating when she filed a bias claim.

Sherri Lindfors was awarded $50,000 for emotional distress and $725,000 in punitive damages.

While it affirmed the jury's verdict against Era, the state's highest court said the punitive damages were excessive, and Lindfors could accept $500,000 or ask for a new trial on the amount.

The justices said that the damage award should be adjusted in the wake of another recent case involving Norcon, Inc. In that case, the court found that flagrant sexual harassment at Norcon warranted an award of no more than $500,000.

Finding that the two cases were similar, the justices concluded that the award against Era should be limited to the same figure.

The justices rejected arguments from Era that the jury instructions were improper, and that testimony by a flight attendant about an encounter with an intoxicated Era executive should have been excluded.

The unanimous ruling was written by Justice Alex Bryner. Warren Matthews, then chief justice, and Justice Robert Eastaugh concurred.

Lindfors worked for Era from 1988 to 1995, briefly as a dispatcher and then as a co-pilot. She argued that she was passed over for promotion to captain while less-qualified male pilots made the rank.

Lindfors filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in spring 1995 alleging that James Vande Voorde, a vice president at Era, refused to promote her because of her sex.

Lindfors based her retaliation claim primarily on evidence that ERA rescinded paychecks while she was out sick, created obstacles that made it impossible for her to pass her annual proficiency check, and placed negative information in her file that destroyed her job prospects as a commercial pilot.

The jury ruled that she was discriminated against before filing the complaint and that she suffered retaliation for the filing. Her lawsuit claimed she was forced to quit, but the jury didn't agree.

One flight attendant testified at her trial about offensive sexual and racial remarks made to her by Era's in-house lawyer and equal employment opportunities officer, Jack Birmingham.

Birmingham and Vande Voorde left the company two years ago in the wake of the Lindfors trial and another former employee's suit that led to a $1.2 million judgment against the airline.

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