A jury in the U.S. district court in New Orleans has awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five Indian guest workers who were defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme. The five were part of a group of nearly 500 men brought to America as H-2B guest workers. The jury found that Signal International, New Orleans lawyer Malvern C. Burnett and India-based recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. Plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph Bjarnson, who devoted hundreds of pro bono hours to the case, discusses the trial and explains what will happen next.
Bjarnson notes that the case has been going on for about seven years. Other lawyers on the plaintiffs’ side in this case included participants from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Crowell & Moring, LLP, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
Bjarnson says that the plaintiffs are welders and pipefitters, and they were working in India and Saudia Arabia, when they were offered work with Signal International in Mississippi and Texas. When they were recruited, they were told that they would be able to obtain green cards and get permanent U.S. residency. The promises turned out to be false. The men arrived in the U.S. after paying unreasonably high fees for what they thought to be green cards. In fact, they were put in labor camps and did not receive what they were promised.
This is one of the largest verdicts ever in a human trafficking case, Bjarnson explains. And human trafficking is probably more common than most people would expect. There are some flaws in the temporary worker programs, and some companies have exploited those flaws. And though situation may not be what most people think of when they hear the words “human trafficking,” this is a common scenario.
As to how the system might be reformed to prevent these problems from occurring, Bjarnson opines that better oversight of the program would be a good place to start. “There wasn’t a lot of oversight given into the company’s representations to the U.S. government to get these visas.” No real inquiry was made into the truth of the company’s statements.
Bjarnson says that the verdict will be appealed. He notes that there are a number of other lawsuits pending, so there will be more trials down the road, absent a settlement of the claims. Bjarnson says that he has seen no press releases from the defendants since the verdict was handed down. As to the immediate future, plaintiffs’ counsel will regroup and look to the future. They still represent seven more workers, and those trials are scheduled in 2016.
Joseph R. Bjarnson is an associate with Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, PLLC, Uniondale, New York. He focuses his practice on commercial litigation. Before joining the Firm, he was a corporate litigation associate at Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, where his practice concentrated on complex commercial litigation involving the healthcare, banking, finance and insurance industries. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.