The number of jury trials going out in our state trial courts continues to drop each year, and the trials-to-actual-verdict ratio seems to experience an even greater percentage drop. The experience in our local Bay Area courts follows the downward trend. Of course, the reasons are many and varied and open to wild speculation.
Anecdotally, we are told civil filings are down, thus fewer cases are in the system. There is also speculation that successful mediations have led to settlements in most cases. The incredible cost of experts is another reason we see cases resolving before trial. Certainly the courts are under severe budget constraints and our judges simply do not have the time to conduct trials given the number of cases each civil trial judge is saddled with.
That, perhaps, helps to explain the pressure brought to bear by our civil courts to get things resolved, and don’t forget the experience of civil trial judges watching their civil jury verdicts go exactly as predicted. We don’t often hear “I told you so” from our judges, but they certainly could say that in most cases in which a civil jury verdict is entered.
I’m not really sure how long I have been writing the Civil Jury Verdicts column for the Contra Costa Lawyer, but it has been many years. Although the number I write about is certainly way down, the predictability of the results remains the same. Clearly, insurance companies use statistics to predict outcomes and case values, and depending on your perspective, they generally get it right.
Recently, I had a discussion with a claims representative at a conference. That person worked for a large and very well-known insurance company, with a large in-house law firm. I was told the company had taken cases to trial only twice in the past year. That is how the world has changed in the civil trial world. Although my most interesting verdicts over the years were those which were aberrant and did not follow what was predicted, I cannot tell you how many times I have written about a rejected offer or a rejected demand, with a very large adverse verdict.
I have repeated many times what Judge Cahill said to me in San Francisco some years ago when he was still on the bench and I had a significant adverse verdict go against my client in a jury trial. He said in words to this effect: In most cases when a case goes to trial, one side or the other miscalculated. That certainly is not to say there are not cases which need to go to trial. A genuine dispute with good arguments on both sides is what the system should be all about.
Finally, a little aside about the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). I have been repeatedly told in the past few years that it seems the only new folks (without gray hair) who can qualify for the minimum number of civil jury verdicts to trial are staff counsel of insurance companies. Feel free to weigh in on this one.
Now onto some civil verdicts for your entertainment.
Franet v. Tseng, Case No MSC13-02223, was tried in Contra Costa Superior Court before the Hon. Jill Fannin. Larry Cook of Walnut Creek represented the plaintiff and Jennifer Kung-Gelini (CSAA staff counsel) represented the defendant.
Factually, the case had some interesting issues. The plaintiff, an 85-year-old retired teacher, observed a baby left alone in a car seat in a vehicle in a shopping center parking lot. She called the police, wrote down the vehicle license plate number and held a piece of cardboard over the window to block the sun from the infant. The defendant came out of a store, got into her vehicle and backed out of the parking space. As she backed out, the plaintiff walked along beside the defendant’s vehicle, and at some point, the vehicle ran over and broke the plaintiff’s foot.
The plaintiff had significant medical specials and claimed significant damages related to required caregiver expenditures. The plaintiff, by CCP 998, early in the litigation, demanded the policy limits of $100,000. The defendant, early in the litigation, offered by CCP 998 $35,000.
Just before trial, the defendant offered $75,000. That was rejected by the plaintiff and the case proceeded to trial. The jury, by 9 to 3, returned a defense verdict. Predictable verdict? You tell me!
I stopped into Judge Craddick’s court room one day in October and had to wait while she instructed the jury in a “wrongful termination” matter. Turns out, it was the sixth jury trial she had since June. So, there goes my argument that cases are not getting out to trial in Contra Costa Superior Court.
I listened to the instructions and my ears perked up. Among other things, the jury was instructed on “Asperger’s syndrome.” A couple of days later, I checked in and found that there had been a verdict. The case was entitled Wasserman v. Costco, Case No. MSC12-00617. The Hon. Judith Craddick presided. Stephen Murphy of San Francisco represented the plaintiff and Mark Grajski of Sacramento represented the defendant, Costco.
The plaintiff, a nine-year employee of Costco, was terminated from his employment with Costco. He alleged the termination was a result of his Asperger’s syndrome. The defense denied the termination had anything to do with Asperger’s.
The first question on the verdict form asked: “Did the plaintiff have Asperger’s syndrome?” The jury reportedly answered that in the negative. Thus, case over; defense verdict.
Kosich v. Pheasant and the Pear Inc., Case No. MSC13-00017, was tried before the Hon. Judith Craddick. Brad Bowles of Walnut Creek represented the plaintiff. Zach Smith of Oakland represented the defendant restaurant.
The plaintiff alleged significant injuries due to a slip and fall on water on the floor in the restroom of the defendant restaurant. The plaintiff claimed specials of $113,503. By CCP 998, the plaintiff demanded $150,000. By CCP 998, the defendant offered $34,000. At trial, the plaintiff asked the jury to award between $300,000 and $600,000. The jury returned a defense verdict.
Solorzano v. Rayana Pitts-Godfrey et al, Case No. MSC13-00675, was tried before the Hon. Judith Craddick. Nicholas J. Mastrangelo and Edward Mastrangelo of Orinda represented the plaintiff. Peter Hirsig and Brandon L.S. Hansen of Fairfield represented the defendants.
The matter involved a motor vehicle accident. The plaintiff was operating a motorcycle when he was broadsided in an intersection by a vehicle driven by the defendant, Godfrey. The plaintiff sustained serious injuries.
The plaintiff served a CCP 998 offer for the policy limits of $100,000. By CCP 998, the defendant offered $25,000. The jury awarded the plaintiff $59,875.07 in past medical expenses, $30,000 in future medical expenses, $170,000 in past non-economic damages and $202,500 in future non-economic damages. The gross verdict was $462,325.07.
Weinstein v. Meyer, Case No P11-01223, was heard by the Hon. John Sugiyama. (Just to let you readers know, when a “P” appears before a case number, it means it is a probate case). The trial lasted 33 days of half-day hearings and testimony. Goodness! The case was consolidated with civil case No. MSC12-00064. The order is not yet final on the civil aspect of the case, so this report will only be about the probate aspect, so stay tuned. At any rate, here is the report on the probate aspect of the consolidated matter:
Frank Mulberg and Brett Mulberg represented the petitioner, Denise Weinstein. Maria Lawless represented the respondent Patricia Meyer. David Ginn represented the respondents Christina Meyer, Nicole Meyer, Jordan Meyer and Dawn Ward. Chris Lucas represented Anne Meyer. Thank you to David Ginn for kindly reporting the case to me.
Denise Yvonne Meyer Weinstein was the oldest daughter among the children of Jay Meyer and his then-wife, Yvonne Meyer. Denise sued Jay Meyer’s second wife of some 30 years, and the children of that second family, alleging Mr. Meyer lacked testamentary capacity and was unduly influenced to execute a trust which called for the surviving spouse to have control over the disposition of the assets of the trust.
Evidence at trial showed that Mr. Meyer was deeply involved in complex business matters at the time he executed the estate planning documents. Medical experts, retained by Denise, relied on autopsy evidence to opine on Mr. Meyer’s mental state some five years before his death.
The court specifically found that Mr. Meyer was competent at the time of the execution of the estate planning documents. The court specifically found there was no undue influence and that the testimony of the two medical experts was not credible.
A wrongful death case entitled Nguyen et al v. Xu, Well Trucking Inc., et al, Alameda County Superior Court Case No. RG13-676150, was tried before the Hon. Frank Roesch. Bradley M. Corsiglia of San Jose and Andrew Schwartz of Walnut Creek represented the three plaintiff families.
The three decedents were traveling to work when the vehicle they were riding in was involved in a head-on accident caused by, among other things, the negligent operation of a big rig truck. The decedents left behind their spouses and seven children.
The jury awarded a gross verdict of $13.7 million. Mr. Corsiglia’s two plaintiff families received $8.5 million. Mr. Schwartz’s clients received $5.2 million.
City of Hayward v. Rabani et al, Alameda County Superior Court Case No. HG 13692337, was tried before the Hon. George C. Hernandez. The Law Firm of Goldfarb & Lipman represented the plaintiff, City of Hayward. Robin Thornton of San Ramon represented the defendant property owners.
The trial related to the amount of compensation due to the property owners for the taking of a portion of their property in the City of Hayward. The property had been leased and operated as an auto salvage yard. The City of Hayward wished to take a portion of the property, bisecting the owners’ property to create a pathway for a new road.
The city initially appraised the takings, including a temporary construction easement, fee taking, severance damages and benefits at $181,038. For trial, that appraisal was raised to $199,319. The defendant property owners’ expert’s appraisal was $1,296,000, then decreased at trial to $1,236,000. The jury returned a total verdict of $651,174.
Estate of Rose G. McGushin, Plumas County Superior Case No. GN PR13-00028, was reported by Konstantine “Kosta” Demiris of Demiris & Moore of Walnut Creek. The case involved a will contest. I will start off by saying Kosta secured a victory for his client Margaret McGushin in the probate matter. No jury trial this time, but a nice verdict. At trial, the court upheld the express language of the will as clear and unambiguous and held the terms would be interpreted under the ordinary meaning under the probate code. Should it be any other way? By the way, where does one stay when trying a case in Plumas County?
Mahan v. Arellano went to trial before the Hon. Stephan Baker in Shasta County Superior Court. Eric Berg of Redding represented the plaintiff. Thomas Beatty of Walnut Creek represented the defendant. Tom obviously had to travel all the way up to Redding just to get a case out to trial. The facts provided perhaps will explain why he traveled that far for a case. The plaintiff, Mahan, was reportedly having a sexual relationship with the wife of the defendant, Arellano. At the time of the “event,” the wife was 8 ½ months pregnant. The defendant discovered the “info” during the birth of his child a few weeks later.
The plaintiff was a body builder and a member of a “hot shot” fire crew. Approximately six months after (not sure after the event or after the birth), the defendant, who in his mind was reconciling with his wife, went to the family home and found the plaintiff once again. The plaintiff claimed the defendant attacked him with a knife and stabbed him in the head. Arellano claimed he was acting in self-defense. The plaintiff alleged he suffered a brain injury requiring brain surgery, and caused PTSD and epilepsy, all of which precluded him ever working as a fire fighter and precluded his work as an owner of a CrossFit studio.
The defendant’s parents owned the house in question and were named defendants in the matter.
At trial, the plaintiff demanded $5.75 million. After a 16-day trial, the jury returned a verdict against the Arellano parents, who owned the house, in the sum of $109,000; less 40 percent comparative fault, and less $40,000 for a previously purchased medical lien. The net verdict for the plaintiff was $37,000, plus costs.
Honestly folks, you cannot make this stuff up.
So that is that for this column of Civil Jury Verdicts. Please keep those cards and letters coming to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have heard this is a popular column, but we cannot regularly write it if we don’t hear about your cases. And remember we will report on any interesting cases, whether jury trial, court trial or an interesting settlement.
Here’s the link to Contra Costa Lawyer:
Civil Jury Verdicts – December 2015