ARCO Liable in Sikh Case

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ARCO Liable in Sikh Case

SEATTLE -- A federal jury has awarded $5 million to three Sikh brothers who contended they were subjected to harassment and eventually dropped by Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co. (Arco), an oil company for whom they did contract work.

The Bains brothers -- Gagandeep, Harinder Paul and Gurinder -- own Flying B, a five-store chain of convenience stores in eastern Washington.

In June 1999, after the Olympic Pipe Line gasoline pipeline ruptured in Bellingham, Wash., killing three people, Arco needed another way to transport gasoline from its Cherry Point refinery in Ferndale to its tank farm in Seattle. The company began hiring tanker trucks to do the job, and Flying B decided to get into the transport business, the Associated Press reported.

The brothers bought one truck in July 1999 and three more later. But, they said, an Arco employee harassed them and their other East Indian drivers repeatedly, making derogatory remarks about their heritage. Two of the three brothers wear turbans and beards in accordance with their religion.

They were forced to use slower pumps, wait in longer lines and stand in the rain when other drivers were given shelter, they said in court documents. Eventually, Arco stopped using their company as a contractor, and they sued under federal civil rights law.

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court jury awarded Flying B $5 million. Dan Cummings, a spokesman for Arco, which has since merged with BP, acknowledged the improper actions of one employee, an hourly worker at the Seattle terminal, but said it was safety violations, not discrimination, that led to Arco dropping Flying B.

In court, Arco alleged a litany of safety violations by Flying B and its drivers, from having cracked brake lines to tailgating. The offending Arco employee was required to undergo counseling, Cummings said.

Ed Budge, a lawyer for the Bains, said there was no evidence of disciplinary action against the Seattle terminal worker, nor any internal memos indicating that Arco was concerned about Flying B's safety record.

"This case took on added significance when several Sikhs living in the U.S. were assaulted and murdered in the wake of reaction to Sept. 11," Budge said. "ARCO may have thought it could capitalize on public fear by claiming the Bains brothers and their Sikh tanker drivers were 'unsafe,' even though there was no contemporaneous documentation of any violations in Arco's records. We had confidence that the jury would see through that."