Coroner: Man crushed, killed by equipment at Nucor Steel

An aerial view of Nucor Steel Berkeley plant. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Workers who alleged they were subjected to racial discrimination at Nucor Corp.'s steel mill in Berkeley County will get payouts of at least $100,000 each as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement approved Thursday.

The $22.5 million settlement, which one of the attorneys called "substantial" for a case of its type, ends a court battle that started in 2003. Nucor did not admit any wrongdoing in settling the complaint.

"I'm relieved and happy for my clients that they've finally gotten this behind them," said Robert Wiggins Jr., a civil rights attorney who represented the workers. Wiggins said the agreement prevents him and others from speaking in detail about the case.

Nucor lawyers told U.S, District Court Judge David Norton that they think the agreement is a fair resolution to the case, although they objected to one worker's request to file his own lawsuit rather than abide by the settlement terms. Norton said that issue will be taken up at a later date.

Wiggins said his legal team is still trying to determine how many current and former Nucor workers will qualify for payouts. There were 114 claims filed, but not all of them will qualify. That means the average amount paid to each worker could increase from the current estimate. Lawyers representing the workers will get $10 million from the settlement amount.

"This is one of the most intensive types of class-action cases ever tried," said Armand Derfner, a Charleston lawyer representing the workers. Derfner said the legal team spent more than 10,000 hours working on the case.

"These are astronomical numbers, but this is an astronomical case," he said.

The initial allegations of hostile working conditions date to 2002, with black workers saying in court documents that their white counterparts used racial epithets when talking to them, displayed Confederate flags, nooses and other racist symbols, and denied them promotions and other benefits because of their race.

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A lawsuit alleging employment and equal rights violations originally was filed in 2003 against Nucor mills in Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina and Texas. That case, filed in an Arkansas, was transferred to the Palmetto State in 2004.

John Wilkerson, a lawyer representing Nucor, said the Charlotte-based steelmaker is already complying with parts of the settlement that call for such measures as non-discrimination training for employees and the reiteration of company policies barring discrimination.

While the agreement approved Thursday ranks among South Carolina's top class-action settlements, the payout by Nucor amounts to less than 2 percent of the company's $1.32 billion in net income it reported for 2017. Nucor said in its most recent quarterly financial report that none of the lawsuits the company faces "would be expected to have a material adverse effect on our results of operations, financial position or cash flows."

The Nucor Berkeley mill off Cainhoy Road in Huger makes flat-rolled steel and steel beams with an annual capacity of about 27 million tons.

The company  has invested about $1 billion in the Berkeley County plant since 1995, including a major expansion in 2013 that allows the plant to produce thinner, wider and higher-grade varieties of steel.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_