Friday, May 22, 2009
Judge Torres’ Bias Permeated Trial, Lawyers Tell Appellate Panel
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Lawyers claiming millions of dollars in damages on behalf of 23 plaintiffs who allege they became sick as a result of air contamination in a Los Angeles office building told a Court of Appeal panel yesterday that verdicts for the defendants should be set aside due to judicial bias.
The plaintiffs would have obtained better results if not for “the overarching enmity shown by [retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ricardo A. Torres] toward the plaintiffs’ lawyers” before and during the 2005 trial, attorney Andrew Krzemuski told the panel.
Torres, now 79, retired in 1999 but has sat since then pursuant to a series of assignments by the chief judge. He was the court’s presiding judge in 1991 and 1992.
In the case argued yesterday, Cherry v. 3075 Wilshire Boulevard, LLC, the plaintiffs contend they were exposed to Legionnaire’s Disease or high levels of bacteria and mold while working in the defendants’ building. One of the plaintiffs, Wanda Cherry, won a $1.3 million verdict which the defendants are cross-appealing; Cherry claims she should have been awarded more.
They are arguing on appeal that Torres showed them overwhelming hostility from the time the case was assigned to him, just prior to trial. They cite his refusal to reconsider an earlier order by Judge George Wu—now of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California—striking hundreds of plaintiffs exhibits because they were submitted a day late, even though Wu had specified that some of the exhibits might be allowed in if the plaintiffs could show that they were provided to the defense on discovery.
Torres’ actions, they claim, were motivated in part by an animus towards one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Robert Scott Shtofman, who had clashed with the judge in a couple of previous cases. The judge, they noted, suggested in open court that another lawyer serve as lead counsel, even though the four attorneys representing the plaintiffs had agreed that Shtofman would fill that rule.
They also cite Torres admission, during a recess colloquy with another plaintiff’s lawyer, Richard Chaskin, that he “did not read any motion,” that he had “not look at it” and “never saw it,” and was not going to consider it because “discovery is closed,” and his refusal to reconsider even after it was pointed out that the motion dealt with trial exhibits and not discovery.
Krzemuski, a diabetic, noted that his leg had been amputated shortly before the trial and that he was forced to use a wheelchair throughout the proceedings, and said the judge’s bias was so palpable that he refused him simple accommodations as to where he could position himself in the courtroom.
He told the justices that Torres’ attitude toward his disability was “mean-spirited” and said he had “never been treated in this manner.”
Defense attorney Edmund Farrell responded that all of Torres’ rulings in the case were well within the trial judge’s discretion and that none of them caused any prejudice to the plaintiffs.
“I think it is abundantly clear that the appellants have failed to show why the verdicts...should be reversed,” he told the panel.
The justices—Kathryn Doi Todd, Judith Ashmann-Gerst, and Victoria Chavez—asked no questions of either attorney during the argument.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company