In this recent opinion, a California Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment in favor of an injured individual who brought a lawsuit against a man who allegedly attacked him at a restaurant in Venice, California. The injured plaintiff also sued the restaurant, the security guard, and the company for which he worked. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on the battery and negligence causes of action, and the judge assessed punitive damages against the defendant who was the alleged aggressor. On appeal, the defendant contended that the judgment should be reversed, due to insufficient evidence supporting both the verdict and the punitive damages.
After being attacked inside the Venice restaurant by defendant Donald Hartunian, Dale Johnson contended that he suffered injuries to his knee, including a torn ACL. Since there were several different defendants in this case, after the issue of punitive damages was bifurcated for trial, the matter went to the jury on the theories of: (1) premises liability and negligence of the bar; (2) negligence of the security company; (3) negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress as to the security guard; and (4) negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress as to the alleged aggressor, defendant Donald Hartunian.
The jury rendered a verdict in favor of the bar, the security company, and the security guard on all the causes of action, but it found against Mr. Hartunian on the battery and negligence causes of action. They apportioned 85 percent of the fault for Mr. Johnson’s damages to Mr. Hartunian and 15 percent to Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson was awarded $96,000 in damages.
Regarding the punitive damages phase, the appellate court stated that the trial court had found that punitive damages were appropriate, based on the physical harm to Mr. Johnson and the fact that it appeared the harm had been inflicted with reckless disregard for his and other patrons’ safety. The court had also noted that Mr. Johnson suffered “fairly significant” harm, leading to substantial medical expenses. The court ultimately doubled the jury’s damages award to arrive at $163,200. Mr. Hartunian moved for a new trial, and the court denied the motion. He then appealed.
On appeal, Mr. Hartunian alleged that the trial court erred by including “self-defense” in the special verdict form, and he claimed that there was insufficient evidence he caused Mr. Johnson’s injuries. He also claimed that the punitive damages award was excessive and not supported by evidence.
Regarding the special verdict form, the court stated the rule that a special verdict is fatally defective if it does not allow the jury to resolve every controverted issue. Mr. Hartunian argued that the special verdict did not contain the same question on the interrogatory regarding his right to self-defense. The court rejected this contention, stating that even if the failure to include questions regarding self-defense was a “defect,” since it was apparent on the fact of the verdict, it could have been raised before the form went to the jury. The court also noted that it was unlikely the jury would have found that Mr. Hartunian had been acting in self-defense.
Next, the court addressed Mr. Hartunian’s contention that there was insufficient evidence that he caused Mr. Johnson’s injury. The court stated the rule that the substantial evidence standard requires the court to assess the evidence as a whole, including evidence that does not support Mr. Hartunian’s version of the events. A party that challenges the sufficiency of the evidence is required to summarize the evidence and show in which way it is insufficient. The court stated Mr. Hartunian failed to adhere to this practice, and as a result, he waived the issue.
Additionally, the court stated there was evidence supporting the finding that Mr. Hartunian caused Mr. Johnson’s injury. Mr. Johnson had testified that Mr. Hartunian grabbed him and threw him to the ground, stomping on his knee. Mr. Johnson was diagnosed with a torn ACL, and one doctor opined that Mr. Johnson’s injuries were consistent with Mr. Johnson’s version of events. The jury, the court stated, was entitled to believe Mr. Johnson’s or any other witness’ story, or parts of it.
Finally, the court stated that generally, the trier of fact that determines liability must also determine punitive damages. But in this case, Mr. Hartunian waived a jury trial on the damages issue. Furthermore, the rule regarding punitive damages is that they are appropriate when the defendant acts with oppression, malice, or fraud, and this is shown by clear and convincing evidence.
Regarding punitive damages, such an award must be reviewed to determine whether it is excessive by looking at the nature of the defendant’s wrongdoing, the actual harm to the plaintiff, and the wealth of the defendant, as well as other factors. Here, Mr. Hartunian contended the punitive damages award must be reversed because the trial court looked at his gross income, rather than his net income. The appellate court stated that there was little evidence from which the trial court could achieve a holistic view of the financial situation, due to Mr. Hartunian’s selective production of documents.
When a defendant intentionally withholds or conceals information about his assets, the trial court has a “wide latitude” to make inferences that are unfavorable to the defendant. The appellate court stated that the trial court made these negative inferences, since Mr. Hartunian’s testimony included a failure to be forthright with regard to his expenses and income. The court stated that Mr. Hartunian’s intentional obfuscation, which was designed to hide his net worth, prevented him from claiming there was no evidence of his net worth.
The appellate court affirmed the decision in favor of the plaintiff, Mr. Johnson.
The Southern California personal injury attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide legal representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.
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