Worker shovels silica next to melted steel inside a hall at the ArcelorMittal Galati steel factory in Galati (Reuters)

A US court awarded $25 million in damages to an African-American employee in a steel plant after finding his former employers liable for racial discrimination.

In a case that resembled those of the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, Elijah Turley testified that KKK and King Kong graffiti were painted on the walls of the Lackawanna steel plant, which was owned by Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal until its closure in 2009.

Turley was repeatedly called "monkey" or "boy" by some employees. Once he found a stuffed monkey hanging from his car in the plant parking lot and the KKK graffiti inside the facility.

The incidents, between 2005 and 2008, reportedly left him physically and psychologically wrecked and forever changed his life.

"This case is about the breakdown of a man," Ryan J. Mills, Turley's lawyer, told the jury. "He wanted to be treated equally in a culture that hadn't changed since the '50s."

Lawyers from ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel maker by sales, admitted that the incidents took place but refused to recognise the company's and its executives' responsibility.

"The defendants did not actively participate in this conduct," James R. Grasso, a lawyer for the company and its executives, told the jury. "They took reasonable steps to stop what was going on."

The company hired a private investigator, set up security cameras and suspended employees involved in the incidents to halt the harassment, Grasso said.

"This is not the conduct of someone trying to decompose a man," Grasso said in his closing argument.

But the Buffalo jury ruled out that ArcelorMittal was liable for allowing "hostile work environment" to exist and for the "intentional infliction of emotional distress", causing the destruction of a man.