May 19, 2010 — -- Novartis, one of the world's largest drug companies, was ordered today by a New York jury to pay $250 million in punitive damages to current and former female employees who accused the company of discriminating against them.
The order comes on top of the $3.3 million in compensatory damages Novartis was ordered to pay earlier this week to 12 women who claimed in court that the company treated them unfairly because they were women and, in some cases, because they got pregnant.
A jury found Novartis guilty earlier this week of sexual discrimination.
A representative from Novartis, lauded for being one of the best places to work for mothers, said in a written statement that the company "strongly disputes" the claims of discrimination.
"We are disappointed in the jury's verdict," said the statement by Andy Wyss, head of Pharma North America and president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. "For more than 10 years the company has developed and implemented policies setting high standards with regards to diversity and inclusion for the development of our employees."
David Sanford, the attorney for the women, said the jury's rulings "sent a message to Novartis and all other corporations in America that they cannot continue to get away with the discrimination and the systemic problems that have gone on for so long."
The 5,600 female sales employee who are part of the class action lawsuit will each get a piece of the $250 million.
Next week, Judge Colleen McMahon will rule on whether the women were paid less than men and if she decides they were, Novartis could have to pay even more in damages. The court will also monitor the company to see if they improve their business practices going forward.
The drug company is best known for its products Lamisil, Ritalin and Theraflu.
Novartis has been at the top of several publications "best employers" lists, notably that of Working Mother magazine which has included the company on its 100 Best Companies list for the past ten years.
In the October 2009 issue of Working Mother, Novartis was praised for its job-sharing programs and "customizable child-care offerings."
But at least one mother involved in the class action suit claimed that she was told she was not "eligible" for the job-share program after she requested to work part-time to allow her time to bond with her recently adopted daughter.
Another plaintiff said that women felt they were "scrutinized" about their child care arrangements by managers, whereas male employees were not.
Female Employees Testify Against Former Employer Novartis
One of the plaintiffs, Holly Waters, argued in court documents that she was not only paid less than her male equivalents at Novartis, but was fired when she was seven months pregnant after taking a few weeks off on advice of her doctors who were concerned about her condition.
At the time of her firing, Waters "did not have low rankings or sales numbers. In fact, she was the highest-ranking sales representative in the district for all of her products," according to the court documents.
ABC News' Russell Goldman contributed to this report.