TAMPA — A jury awarded a former firefighter $245,000 in damages Thursday, deciding she had proved two allegations in her federal lawsuit against the city of Tampa: That she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and the city retaliated against her when she complained.
But on the third allegation, the seven-person jury did not find that the city discriminated against Tanja Vidovic because of her gender. The jury spent less than a day deliberating in U.S. District Court.
Vidovic, 36, cried quietly in court as the verdict was read, her husband and friends looking on in support.
"I feel relieved," Vidovic said later. "I feel that we’re making steps in the right direction on how we treat women personally and in the workforce."
The jury’s decision came after almost four weeks of trial in U.S. District Court, where the jurors heard evidence about Vidovic’s experience at Tampa Fire Rescue.
Vidovic filed an EEOC complaint in 2015, alleging, among other things, that three captains asked her for sex and that the city retaliated against her after she complained about several issues, such as a lack of female bathrooms at most station houses.
"You understand they didn’t just give you a verdict. They gave you your reputation back?" attorney Stanley Padgett told Vidovic as they left the courthouse. She nodded in response, fighting back tears.
The city of Tampa has 30 days after the court enters a formal judgement to appeal the verdict.
"This jury did not hear all of this case because they were not allowed to," defense attorney Tom Gonzalez said, saying the court limited the time the city had to present its case.
Gonzalez filed for a mistrial on those same grounds earlier in the week.
According to the court’s timekeeping, the plaintiff’s attorneys used about 24 hours and the defense used about 30.
The court heard from about 20 witnesses over 13 days of testimony, including fire Chief Tom Forward, other female firefighters, and former supervisors of Vidovic’s, including men she says purposefully gave her a negative evaluation during her pregnancy.
Vidovic said it’s been a long few years, adding that it’s been particularly hard to relive the harassment during each step of the process, whether it’s filing paperwork, giving depositions or sitting through four weeks of trial.
"It’s been really difficult, but you have to keep going," she said.
Vidovic said she was motivated by her 7-year-old daughter, Kalina, who told her she wanted to be a firefighter.
"I looked at her and forced a smile and said, ‘I can’t wait to work with you,’?" Vidovic said. "But in reality, it’s a struggle. I thought it was important to start making the changes to make it equal for all who work there."
Vidovic said she thinks her case and the statements of other women have already started to make a difference in the department. She said she’s seen more women get promoted since her firing in March 2016 and saw progress when the department added privacy curtains in 2015 after a series of Tampa Bay Times articles quoting Vidovic and other female firefighters.
"These little steps that should’ve been taken years ago are starting to happen," Vidovic said. "When we stand up for each other we’re working toward equality and working to make it better for the women who are working there now and hopefully our children who will work there in the future."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.