Worker Wins $5 Million Jury Award on Second Hand Smoking Charges

May 15, 2003 ( - A New York state jury ordered the Elite Model Management agency to pay $5.27 million to a former employee who charged that her complaints about office cigarette smoke aggravating her asthma prompted her firing.

>The state Supreme Court jury awarded the money to Victoria Gallegos, 32, after finding that Elite subjected her to a hostile work environment and fired her because of her asthma and her complaints, according to an Associated Press report.

>Gallegos was let go in 1999, just seven weeks after she was hired at $100,000 a year to eventually run the firm’s New York office, according to the complaint. Gallegos sued under the city’s Human Rights Law, which requires employers to accommodate employees’ disabilities. In her lawsuit, Gallegos contends she was constantly exposed to secondhand smoke at the agency, where agents and models smoked in the open area where she worked. Gallegos, who has asthma and is sensitive to smoke, alleges she had told Elite that she would not take the job unless the agency did something about the secondhand smoke in its office.

>Elite assured her that changes would be made to correct the open area smoking.   However, when Gallegos began her employment, the smoking continued. Gallegos claims the smoke-filled environment led to the contraction of chronic sinusitis, with symptoms that included wheezing, shortness of breath, nausea and coughing up blood.   She said she repeatedly complained, but nothing was done about the smoking. Further, Gallegos contends she was admonished and told not to be a “fanatic,” which eventual led to her termination (See Short-Term Secondhand Smoke Case Goes To Jury ).

Elite’s lawyer, Robert Goodman, told the judge that he would file a motion to throw out the award.The agency represents some of the industry’s top models, including Claudia Schiffer and Laura Cisneros.