$38.5 million punitive-damage award in Kraft-Nabisco shootings

Shooting victim LaTonya Brown's mom, Terral Brown (left), and LaTonya's daughter, Tyleesha Brown, 17, show family photos to reporters in front of their North Philly home. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

A Common Pleas Court jury on Monday awarded more than $38.5 million in punitive damages against a security-guard firm for the families of two women killed by a coworker at the Kraft-Nabisco cookie plant in Northeast Philadelphia in 2010.

The decision follows another jury's decision to award $8.02 million in compensatory damages to the families of LaTonya Brown, 36, and Tanya Wilson, 47. Brown and Wilson were fatally shot by Yvonne Hiller, whom a judge said suffered from mental illness and believed her coworkers were poisoning her.

Hiller, who also wounded a third coworker, was sentenced in 2012 to two consecutive terms of life in prison without parole.

U.S. Security Associates Inc., of Georgia, was found negligent by a prior jury that awarded the compensatory damages. That jury deadlocked on punitive damages, so the second jury heard the case for punitive damages and decided on an award of $38,512,600.

Shanin Specter, an attorney representing the two families, said that two security guards ran from their post at a security shack when confronted by an armed Hiller, who had been escorted from the plant earlier.

One guard warned a mechanic outside the building that Hiller was back with a gun, but neither guard took any other steps to warn the rest of the 120 people who were working at the plant the night of the shooting.

Specter said the punitive award sends "a really important message" to U.S. Security Associates, which is a major supplier of security services in the region.

"Their guards just ran away in the middle of a crisis," Specter said.

In a statement, U.S. Security Associates said it intends to appeal the decision and "believes that its personnel on duty on the night of the [Kraft-Nabisco] shooting made reasonable decisions and acted with courage in the face of a direct threat to their own lives. In no sense did they or USSA display an intentional disregard for the safety of others."

The company added: "At the same time, the people of USSA sympathize deeply with the families of Tanya Renee Wilson and LaTonya Sharon Brown, the two women who died in the shooting, and with Bryant Dalton, who was severely wounded."