Lawsuit puts safety at forefront - East Valley Tribune: Business

Lawsuit puts safety at forefront

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Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2005 6:49 am | Updated: 8:29 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

JACKSON, Miss. - Alvin Collier remembers the bloody shooting spree at the Lockheed Martin Corp. plant each time he has to tie his shoes without the two fingers that were blasted off his hand.

For Bobby McCall, that summer day was the last time he saw his wife of 26 years.

It was July 8, 2003, when Lockheed worker Doug Williams left a diversity training class at the plant in Meridian that makes airplane components, and returned with a 12 gauge shotgun and a semiautomatic rifle. He killed Lynette McCall and four others and wounded eight, including Collier, before taking his own life.

Williams, who the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission described as having created a ‘‘racially charged atmosphere’’ at the plant, was white; four of the dead were black, while a majority of the wounded were white. Nearly two years after the shootings, a federal lawsuit filed by Collier and the families of two of the dead contends Lockheed knew of Williams’ views and should have taken steps to prevent the shootings.

Bobby McCall, one of the plaintiffs, said his wife lived in constant fear that Williams’ openly racist beliefs would one day boil over.

‘‘My wife and I talked about it on a daily basis,’’ McCall said. ‘‘The thing about this was, (Williams) was up front. Everybody knew what his plan was.’’

Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed, the nation’s biggest defense contractor, said its management had no way of knowing that Williams would go on a shooting spree, and it denied there was a connection between the shootings and Williams’ views.

‘‘Lockheed Martin strongly maintains that the Meridian tragedy was not caused by unlawful race discrimination in the workplace,’’ company spokesman Thomas Greer said in a prepared statement to The Associated Press. ‘‘The shooting at the Meridian facility, whose victims were not limited to any one racial group, was a senseless tragedy to all who were affected by it.’’

But the plaintiffs are likely to cite the EEOC’s July 2004 report on the shooting when they make their case.

‘‘(Lockheed) was aware of the severity and extent of the racially charged and hostile environment created by Mr. Williams, which included threats to kill African-American employees,’’ the determination by the EEOC’s Jackson office said. ‘‘(Lockheed’s) reaction to those threats against African American employees was inadequate and permitted the racially charged atmosphere to grow in intensity, culminating in the shooting of 14 individuals.’’

Williams, who had worked at the plant for almost 20 years, roamed through the factory on July 8, 2003, firing at co-workers. Collier, who was wounded in the back and arm and lost two fingers, said Lockheed management should have dealt with Williams before his hatred was unleashed.

‘‘The warning signs were there,’’ Collier said. ‘‘The company themselves refused to act on it.’’

Attorney Clayton Davie of Alabama, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Collier, the McCalls and the family of another dead worker, said Lockheed was aware of the threat posed by Williams yet did too little to defuse the situation. In the end, Davie said, the Meridian plant shooting was the result of ignored racial hostility and intimidation that he claims has plagued Lockheed’s plants for years.

The attorney said Lockheed had sent an official from the Marietta, Ga., plant to address the problems in Meridian. Williams was forced to take an anger management class in addition to the mandatory diversity training program, he said.

Still, Davie said, Williams continued his harassment of black co-workers.

Concerns about the treatment of Lockheed workers have not been limited to the Meridian plant. In May 2000, attorney Johnnie Cochran and other attorneys sought classaction status for workers at a Lockheed plant in Marietta, Ga. Cochran claimed black workers had routinely been denied their civil liberties.

In its statement, Lockheed countered that ‘‘the U.S. District Court in Atlanta denied class certification and the individual discrimination complaints (in the Georgia case) were subsequently dismissed by the court.’’

Davie said there was a settlement between Lockheed and the workers, a copy of which he was trying to obtain.

At least 2 1/2 years before Williams’ shooting spree, Bernice Kimbrough-Williams, director of EEOC’s Atlanta District Office, said that by allowing ‘‘blatantly racist behavior to continue, Lockheed has created an atmosphere of intimidation, where management has gone unchecked in denying equal employment opportunities based on race.’’

Lockheed officials again disagree.

‘‘Neither race discrimination — nor any other type of unlawful discrimination — is a widespread problem within the corporation,’’ the company said. ‘‘Lockheed Martin takes discrimination and harassment seriously and neither is tolerated. In fact, we have strong policies and programs in place to prevent all forms of discrimination.’’

Lockheed Martin employs more than 130,000 people at 939 facilities in 457 cities and builds some of the most advanced weapons in the U.S. military’s arsenal, including the new F-22 Raptor and the F-16 Eagle.

The case, if it goes against Lockheed, could prompt other companies to examine their safety policies with workplace attacks being the third leading cause of occupational death in the United States, said Bob Ross, assistant regional administrator for enforcement programs for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Ross said each company should tailor its employee regulations to the company’s needs and enforce those rules.

‘‘It is the employers’ responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all its employees,’’ he said. ‘‘Training and education is the most important thing.’’

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