Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Court of Appeal Upholds $2.5 Million Verdict in Retaliation Case
Justice Says Defendant Stonewalled Plaintiff on Evidence of Net Worth, Upholds Punitive Damages
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The former activities director at a Gardena convalescent hospital was not required to present specific evidence of the owner’s net worth in order to obtain punitive damages for wrongful termination and retaliation, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Eight vacated Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin’s order granting a new trial to Laibco, LLC, owner of Las Flores Convalescent Hospital. The court upheld a jury verdict in favor of Teresa D. Green, who was fired from her position after more than 21 years of employment.
Jurors awarded Green $1,237,086 in compensation and an equal amount of punitive damages on her claims for termination in violation of public policy and violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. She may also be able to recover her attorney fees based on her FEHA claim, in which she asserted she was fired, in part, because she complained that another employee had engaged in sexual harassment of her subordinate.
Laib Greenspoon, the company’s chief executive, said he fired Green after determining that her negligence was responsible for injuries suffered by a patient who was badly burned while smoking. Although Green was not present at the time, her staff was responsible for the protection of patients who used the facility’s smoking area.
Green, however, said she had long complained about patient safety in general and about the smoking area in particular. She said she had worked at the facility for 20 years without incident before Laibco purchased the hospital, and the former operator testified that Green was an excellent employee.
Told to Lie
She portrayed Greenspoon as indifferent, if not hostile, to her concerns about safety. He also tried to persuade her to lie to the Department of Health Services by telling investigators she was at the hospital at the time of the patient injury, and had refused to take corrective action when she told him about the sexual harassment incident, she said.
It took the jury 39 minutes to reach a verdict on compensatory damages, which included $1 million in past and future non-economic damages and more than $237,000 in actual losses, in the first phase of the trial. After a second phase, in which Greenspoon said he had no idea how much his company was worth and that he didn’t understand its balance sheet, the jury awarded punitive damages, bringing the total verdict to more than $2.474 million.
The defense moved for a new trial on all issues, and for a JNOV on punitive damages.
Fruin granted the motion for new trial, noting the ruling “automatically grants a new trial also on the issue of punitive damages.” He said that he would have granted JNOV on punitive damages otherwise.
The Court of Appeal, however, on appeal by both sides, said Fruin had no jurisdiction to grant a new trial because he waited one day too long. Grimes cited Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 660, under which a motion for new trial is denied by operation of law if the court fails to rule within 60 days.
The 60-day period is measured from the date the clerk mails notice of entry of judgment, or from the date a party gives notice, or the date a party files a notice of intention to move for a new trial, whichever comes first.
Laibco, Grimes noted, filed a notice of intention on Sept. 19, 2008, more than three weeks before judgment was entered. A hearing was held Oct. 27, but Fruin took the motions under advisement; the order granting new trial was entered Nov. 19—61 days after the defendant filed its notice.
Citing several cases, Grimes said Sec. 660 was an absolute bar to granting the motion after Nov. 18, so the order was void. Cases cited by the defense, arguing the contrary, had nothing to do with the issue, the justice said.
The jurist went on to deride as “chutzpah”—Yiddish for unmitigated gall—the defense argument that the plaintiff had present insufficient evidence of Laibco’s financial condition.
“The notion that the jury did not have necessary information about defendant’s net worth because plaintiff did not move defendant’s financial statements into evidence—statements which defendant’s own CEO could not read—is the height of absurdity,” she wrote. “The jury did not have information about defendant’s net worth because defendant’s CEO engaged in stonewalling, pure and simple, from beginning to end.”
Under the circumstances, Grimes said, the jury was entitled to infer from the evidence it did have—showing that the company had earned over $670,000 in profits for the most recently recorded 12-month period, and that it had a positive net worth—that it could afford to pay more than $1.2 million in punitive damages.
The case is Green v. Laibco LLC, B212933.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company