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Jury Awards Obese Ex-Auto Parts Manager $1 Million

Fri., Sept. 8, 1995, midnight

An Alameda County jury has awarded a man more than $1 million after finding that he was fired as manager of a Berkeley, Calif., auto parts store because he weighed more than 400 pounds.

“There’s only one word I can use to describe my feelings: ecstatic,” said 35-year-old John Rossi, who now lives and works in San Diego.

Attorney Barbara Lawless of San Francisco, who represented Rossi during the six-week trial, described the award as “record-breaking.” She said it was the first major verdict for someone who had been fired for obesity in California.

Rossi was fired in July 1991 as manager of the Kragen Auto Parts store on University Avenue in Berkeley.

The jury found against Kragen’s parent firm, Northern Automotive Corp. of Phoenix. Company attorney Marc Ercoon said Northern was extremely disappointed by the verdict.

“Northern maintains that Rossi was terminated solely for cause and that discrimination of any kind had no part in the decision to terminate Mr. Rossi’s employment,” Ercoon said.

He said Northern was considering an appeal.

In 1993, the state Supreme Court ruled that overweight people must prove that their obesity was a physiological disorder in order to be considered a disability.

During the trial, Dr. Richard Kamrath of Walnut Creek testified that people’s weights were determined 80 percent by genes and 20 percent by their environment.

The jury also heard testimony from Dick Stolpe, Northern’s loss prevention manager, who testified that Rossi’s regional manager had wanted to fire him because of his weight. Rossi’s commendable performance reviews deteriorated after the regional manager’s arrival, testimony showed.

Lawless described Rossi as a workaholic who typically worked 12-hour days. When Rossi realized his obesity was causing health problems, he asked for medical help, but the company said it could do nothing for him, she said.

Lawless said it was clear to the jury that Rossi was disabled by his condition, since it was difficult for him to sit, stand and walk in the courtroom.

The Alameda County Superior Court jury in Oakland Friday awarded $776,739 to Rossi for emotional distress and $258,913 for lost compensation and benefits.

“I don’t usually show my emotion, but when the verdict was read, I started crying,” Rossi said.

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