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Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a huge judgment against a turkey processing company. The case involved severe physical and emotional abuse of men with intellectual disabilities. But the EEOC now says the $240 million judgment will have to be reduced because it exceeds a legal cap on jury awards.

As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, the case highlights the difficulty of preventing abuse when the workers who are affected are unlikely to come forward.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: On a February day four years ago, 21 men with intellectual disabilities were emancipated from a bright blue, century-old schoolhouse in Atalissa, Iowa. They ranged in age from their 40s to their 60s, and for most of their adult lives they'd worked for next to nothing and lived in dangerously unsanitary conditions.

SUSAN SEEHASE: The number of cockroaches was so overwhelming.

NOGUCHI: Susan Seehase is director of a support center that took in most of the men. She visited the old dwelling, where windows were boarded up, allowing little ventilation or light. A leaky roof, mildew, accumulated grease, and mice droppings contributed to an overwhelming stench. A fire marshal immediately condemned it, later testifying it was the worst he'd seen in nearly 3,000 inspections.

During the day, the men worked at a nearby processing plant, gutting turkeys under the watchful eye of a contractor called Hill County Farms, which was paid to oversee the men's work and living arrangements. Those supervisors hit, kicked, handcuffed and verbally abused the men, who were paid $2 a day. This went on for three decades, affecting 32 men.

Seehase says medical exams later revealed the men suffered diabetes, hypertension, malnutrition, and festering fungal infections that had gone untreated.

SEEHASE: Roots of teeth were exposed.

NOGUCHI: She says it went on and on because the men knew nothing better, and no one reported the abuse.

SEEHASE: Their life experiences didn't tell them that there was really another option for them. It's incredibly difficult to try to understand. And I have no explanation. And I don't know who can explain how this really happened.

NOGUCHI: The owner of Hill County Farms, Kenneth Henry, could not be reached and his attorney didn't respond to requests seeking comment. In testimony, Henry acknowledged paying the men $65 a month, but denied knowing about the neglect or abuse.

Robert Canino is the prosecuting attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that won the verdict.

ROBERT CANINO: We are always shocked to find out about these extreme cases because we don't believe that they could've happened in our own backyard.

NOGUCHI: This year, the EEOC is making a priority of prosecuting cases involving vulnerable workers. These involve migrant farm workers who are raped by supervisors in the fields, for example, or others who are the most likely to be exploited and least able to speak out in their own defense.

Canino says the turkey workers' case reminds him of human-trafficking cases he's prosecuted. The men were originally from Texas but transported out of state, where they lived isolated lives. He says vulnerable workers often remain silent because they don't know their legal rights. They're usually isolated by design from family, friends and community, and live in fear of abuse.

CANINO: We see the impact of the verdict as one that will hopefully open all our eyes to be more vigilant as a society, to be more watchful. Maybe they're people that we see but don't notice. We don't notice them because we consciously or subconsciously assign them to some different station in life. And we assume that we can't connect with them, we can't relate to them, so we go about our business.

NOGUCHI: This case, he says, demonstrates the cost.

CANINO: It's a wakeup call. And hopefully we don't ever in the future have to ask the question: How could this go on for so long and nobody notice.

NOGUCHI: Hill County Farms, also known as Henry's Turkey Service, is now out of business. Canino says it's unclear how much of the money will be recovered to compensate the men. But he says they say the real value of victory isn't the money.

CANINO: They told me that they were glad that people knew their story was the truth. They fully understand the concept of people understanding them and believing them and then valuing them - they got that.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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