Wal-Mart's Discrimination Suit: How Much Money Is at Stake?

Wal-Mart class action plaintiffs
Wal-Mart class action plaintiffs

The U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that a class action by female workers against Wal-Mart (WMT) can proceed. The massive suit could include millions of women who claim the retailer pays women less than men for the same job and promotes men more frequently and more speedily than women The case has been going on since 2001.

Just how much Wal-Mart could be on the hook for, though, is a very open question.

ABC News reported that if Wal-Mart loses the case, it could cost "billions of dollars," but the network gave no source. Bloomberg also reported that the suit could cost the world's largest retailer billions of dollars and could include more than 2.5 million women, but again, it didn't cite any source. The Associated Press described the 6-5 ruling by the appellate court without supplying a number, nor did CNN. It's odd, because that should be a big part of the story. Maybe it's just too difficult to find a reliable number.

The Wall Street Journal ran a detailed report on the future of the case, pointing out that a "key issue concerns punitive damages, or the penalties that defendants sometimes must pay above any recoveries for actual injuries." In other words, no one can determine a figure yet.

The Wal-Mart story is a good example of how a big piece of news can get away from the media and the extent to which a little exaggeration about a fact that no one knows for certain can taint the more important and verifiable details. The story is juicy enough without being embellished.

The action could be one of the largest class judgments in U.S. history -- that is, unless it never makes into into a court of law. Then there's the question of how many women will be included in the suit. Will it be all of the females who worked at Wal-Mart after 2001, or just those who didn't get good promotions and pay packages compared to there male counterparts? These are all good questions, and we'll just have to wait for real answers.