A judge who last year heard a lawsuit by a towing company against three Glouster village officials, which resulted in a whopping $1.04 million jury award against the defendants, has issued a ruling that leaves only $130,000 of that judgment standing – one-eighth of the original amount.
Judge Michael Ward found that a jury in Athens County Common Pleas Court acted properly when it hit the three defendants – Glouster Mayor Robert Funk, Police Chief Roger Taylor and former mayor David Angle – with $130,000 worth of combined damages for lost profits and “consequential damages,” based on their having deliberately interfered with the ability of JD’s Towing to get village towing jobs.
Ward, however, granted the defendants new trials on various other damage awards including all punitive damages that a jury imposed after a nine-day trial last year. In doing so, he also vacated the damage amounts associated with those categories.
Taken together, the damages that the judge essentially set aside add up to more than $910,000. (In most cases Ward did not, however, agree to replace the jury’s judgment with one of his own, or to lower the damages to any specific amount, as the defendants had also asked him to do. Instead, he basically said that the damage issues in question will have to be the subject of another trial.)
After last year’s trial, the jury assessed Angle and Funk $40,000 each in lost-profit and consequential damages, while Taylor was assessed $50,000 in these categories, adding up to a total of $130,000. Ward ruled that this much of the jury’s damages judgment is valid and should stand.
Based on the judge’s June 8 decision on some defense motions, however, both Angle and Funk’s individual damage amounts now drop by $225,000 made up of $150,000 in punitive damages and $75,000 in compensatory damages for causing the defendants emotional distress.
Taylor’s judgment drops by $460,600 $300,000 in punitive damages and $160,600 in various compensatory damages for emotional distress and other categories.
The owners of JD’s Towing, David Dolan, Jr., and his wife, Jennifer Dolan, originally sued Glouster and Athens County officials in early 2005. They claimed that the company had been bumped from a list of tow companies used by Glouster, possibly in retaliation for their having refused to give a reduced rate for a towing job to a friend of Angle’s.
The county was dropped as a defendant in the suit in 2006, but the village remained. After a trial that began in late September 2010, the eight-member jury came back with the award of more than $1 million, after finding that the three defendants deliberately and maliciously interfered with the business relationship between JD’s and the village.
The attorney representing the village officials, Randall L. Lambert, quickly filed motions seeking to have the verdict thrown out, or at least to have the award amount reduced. He argued that the jurors were improperly influenced by the “passion and prejudice” of the Dolans, who he said portrayed themselves misleadingly as victims of the “big bad government.”
In his recent ruling, Ward actually denied many of the types of relief asked for by Lambert. For example, he rejected a defense motion for “remittur,” which had asked him to knock down the size of the damage awards, and he also refused most of Lambert’s requests that the judge issue his own judgment to replace that of the jury. (Ward did, however, grant a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict” in one instance, involving the jury’s finding that Taylor interfered with the business relationship between JD’s and the county.)
The business end of Ward’s decision is in the section where he granted the defendants’ motions for new trial on the issues of compensatory damages for emotional distress, and for all punitive damages. Punitive damages alone accounted for $600,000 of the judgment against the village officials; with the emotional-distress damages and a few other categories of damages applying only to Taylor thrown in, the judge effectively wiped out seven-eighths of the jury’s award, by granting the new trials.
In refusing to grant a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict” regarding the jury’s finding that the defendants interfered with JD’s business relationship with Glouster, Ward found that there was enough evidence presented at trial for the jury to conclude that this did take place.
Regarding punitive damages, Ward likewise refused to grant a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, finding that “there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the defendants’ conduct was outrageous because of their reckless indifference to the plaintiffs’ rights or intentionally and wantonly violated the plaintiff’s rights,” thereby justifying an award of punitive damages.
After making clear, however, that he believes he’s not legally justified in either rejecting the jury’s verdict or reducing its award amounts, Ward went on to grant the defendants a new trial on the punitive, emotional-distress and other damages mentioned above.
He concluded that the jury’s finding that the Dolans had suffered $65,000 in lost profits was “not excessive” and is “sustained by the weight of the evidence.” An additional $230,000 awarded for emotional distress, however ($75,000 each from Angle and Funk, plus $80,000 from Taylor), “is excessive and appears to have been awarded under the influence of passion and prejudice.” He noted that the emotional-distress award is 3.5 times the size of the lost-profits amount, and concluded that “the jury may have punished the defendants because (a village) officer did not give logical reasons for not calling (JD’s) for tows.”
The punitive damages, likewise, the judge found, “are excessive and appear to have been awarded under the influence of passion and prejudice.”
The Dolans’ attorney, Robert C. Paxton, meanwhile, has filed his own motions, seeking to make the defendants pay at least the interest on the damages while the dispute is being worked out, and also to pay his attorney fees. A hearing on these issues is scheduled for Aug. 15.
Posted by Cyndi Kight, Associate Editor of Towing and Recovery Footnotes