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11 million in harassment suit Safeway Inc., was ordered to pay a former employee $11.3 million after a jury determined that the man had been defamed by fraudulent charges of sexual harassment made at the firm's distribution center in Landover. David E. Talley Sr., 60, had been a Safeway employee for 37 years and was working as a trucking manager at the facility on Cabin Branch Road when a bogus complaint was filed in 1996. Talley said he made a lighthearted remark to another employee that became the center of a fraudulent sexual harassment investigation. The incident became common knowledge among employees at the facility and stress related to the inquiry caused Talley, then 54 years old, to suffer a physical and emotional breakdown. He was declared totally disabled in the fall of 1996 and was hospitalized as a suicide risk a year later. Safeway fired Talley in 1998. Attorneys Francis X. Gaegler Jr. and Ann M. Tontodano subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the former manager. Their complaint accused Safeway of libel, slander, gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury awarded Talley compensation and punitive damages after determining that Safeway had gone forward with the harassment complaint even after company officials knew that the accusations against Talley were groundless. The judgment followed a two week trial that ended Jan. 26 in Prince George's County Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro. Talley said Tuesday that he appreciated the job his lawyers had done representing him. He described the experience of hearing the jury's verdict as "overwhelming," and said he considered himself vindicated by the decision. "I have had such a hard time of it for the past four years, and for a jury to come back with a verdict in my favor, it's just hard for words to describe how it made me feel," Talley said. "It was just like telling everybody, telling the whole world, 'Hey, I told you I was innocent. And these people just proved it for me.'" Craig Muckle, spokesman for Safeway, said he could not comment on the details of the case. But he said the lawsuit was groundless and he was critical of the jury's decision. "We feel that the case is without merit and that the verdict was not supported by the evidence," Muckle said. The trouble began when Talley and two male coworkers were driving in a company van to the Landover facility in early August 1996. The three reportedly exchanged lighthearted remarks about a girl they saw walking by the side of the road. Talley then made up a joke concerning a teen age girl whose top fell off when she was getting out of a pool. When the three men got back to the office, the lawsuit states, one of the male employees jokingly referred to Talley as "that pervert who likes to look at young girls." Two female employees were sitting in the same area of the office heard the remark. A third employee, Gail Virts, was in another section of the office and allegedly overheard the statement. According to court documents, Virts told Human Resources Manager Terry Eyler that Talley "had a problem with young girls and should be arrested as a threat to teen age girls." Talley's attorneys claimed that Virts held a grudge against Talley because she once had to cancel plans to attend a concert after he scheduled her to work the next day. Although Safeway officials never interviewed any of the employees in the office area besides Virts, court documents state, Eyler presented Talley with a copy of the complaint for him to sign. Talley was told that the letter could be used against him in the future, but that "if he would just admit that the allegations were true the matter would just blow over." Talley declined to sign the document. But he discovered a short time later that the allegations against him had become common knowledge at the facility. Talley said he was subjected to ridicule and accusations by co workers during the course of the company's investigation. During one interview with a personnel official, Talley collapsed and had to be revived by medics and hospitalized for treatment. Safeway refused to remove the complaint from his file or restore the sick leave and vacation time he had used to deal with the situation, according to Talley's lawyers. The jury awarded Talley these funds as well as $10 million in punitive damages. Plaintiff's attorneys originally sought $30 million. Eyler and Virts were also ordered to pay part of Talley's medical expenses. Muckle said he is not aware of any other similar lawsuit regarding an alleged false complaint being filed against the company on the East Coast in at least three years. Talley said that he is still receiving psychological counseling as well as treatment for his heart. He bears no ill will toward the company he worked at for almost four decades, he said, but feels that Safeway officials should have done a better job looking into the allegations against him.

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