Okanogan, April 21, 2005
They fled their homeland to escape religious persecution,
knew nothing of the English language and arrived here
with little more than the clothes on their backs.
But after more than 10 years of hard work, the three
Bains brothers -- all Okanogan residents, proud American
citizens and observant Sikhs -- were living the American
They'd parlayed grit and savvy investments into a
successful fuel-hauling business and string of Eastern
Washington service stations. And they did it under
a company name of "Flying B" -- testament
the brothers were flying high in American business.
But after winning a contract to haul fuel for the
Atlantic Richfield Co. in 2000, the Bainses' dream
was tarnished by hatred.
An Arco supervisor at the company's Seattle terminal
repeatedly called them "rag heads" and other
slurs. He intentionally harassed them to delay their
work and cost them money. And after the brothers complained,
Arco fired them.
In 2002, a U.S. District Court jury in Seattle found
Arco had violated the Bainses' civil rights by discriminating
against Flying B. The verdict: Arco was ordered to
pay $5 million in punitive damages, among other awards.
Yesterday, in a decision on Arco's appeal of that
ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals upheld the jury's basic findings:
That the fuel giant had discriminated against the
brothers and their company.
But the court also ruled Arco should pay a substantially
smaller sum in punitive damages. Instead of $5 million,
case law dictates Arco should pay damages more in
the order of $300,000 to $450,000, the ruling found.
Ordering only that the original award be vacated,
the appeals court turned the case back over to U.S.
District Court in Seattle to set revised damages against
For the Bains brothers, the ruling was bittersweet.
"We would've preferred the court to uphold the
verdict in full," said Erik Heipt, the brothers'
lawyer. "But the more important thing for my
clients was the finding that Arco had violated their
civil rights. They still feel vindicated by this ruling."
A spokesman for Arco's owner, BP, said yesterday
that the company was still reviewing the ruling. "Until
we can read and digest it, we can't comment,"
Phil Cochrane said.
The case stems from discrimination that began shortly
after Flying B began hauling fuel for Arco in June
2000. After the Olympic pipeline exploded in 1999,
disrupting fuel transport in Western Washington, Arco
was forced to hire contractors to haul fuel from its
Blaine refinery to its Seattle distribution center.
Flying B -- Gary, Paul and Deep Bains' company that
grew from one Okanogan gas station into an enterprise
that included hauling services, five stations and
30 employees -- was among the firms hired. "It
wasn't until after they were hired that Arco realized
they'd be working with East Indians," Heipt said.
"That's when the egregious behavior began."
Bill Davis, a supervisor at Arco's Seattle terminal,
where haulers dropped off fuel, repeatedly called
the brothers "diaper heads," "stupid
... Indians" and other slurs, court documents
say. The brothers, who were born in the Punjab region
of India, and other Flying B drivers, wear long beards
and turbans traditional of religiously observant Sikhs.
The Bainses complained at least three times to Al
Lawrence, Davis' boss. But the behavior didn't change.
After the third complaint, Arco fired Flying B. Another
manager declined the brothers' appeal of the firing.
During the ensuing lawsuit, Davis admitted using
ethnic slurs and knowing about Arco's policy against
discrimination. A witness also testified hearing Davis'
bragging he'd "gotten rid of those rag heads"
after Flying B was fired. Still, Arco claimed it fired
Flying B solely because of safety violations.
The jury found Arco had breached Flying B's contract
and awarded the company $50,000 in compensation. It
also ruled that the discrimination, while causing
nominal actual damages, violated the company's civil
rights. In addition to more than $400,000 in legal
costs, another $5 million was awarded in punitive
In its appeal, Arco argued the verdict be overturned
because a corporation, such as Flying B, cannot be
ethnically discriminated against.
The appeals court yesterday disagreed with nearly
all Arco arguments -- except that the $5 million in
punitive damages was excessive.