Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Pretty Soon You'll Need a Scorecard to Keep Track of the Lawsuits, Part III.

1. Punitive Damages Awarded to Make Statement.

After I left the Courthouse yesterday, the jury was still deliberating on the punitive damage request of local high school coach John Emme. (See my January 25 and 27, 2005, posts for background on this case.) Today's Los Angeles Times reported that the jury returned with an award of $200,000 in punitive damages--on top of the $500,000 it awarded as compensatory damages. (D. McKibben, "Corona del Mar High School Coach Big Winner in Slander Suit", Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2005, p. B1.)

Echoing his attorney's point in closing argument (see January 27, 2005, post), Mr. Emme stated: "This is a great vindication for me and a tremendous victory for coaches all over the country." (Id.) Coach Emme continued: "I hope this verdict tells people that disappointment lawsuits shouldn't exist and that it makes parents leery of filing them." (Id.) In other words, Emme's comments here are directed not to the purported defamation, but rather the lawsuits that were filed against him.

One juror said "the jury awarded the surprisingly high amount because they wanted to make a statement." (Id.; emphasis supplied.) Again, this sounds like the juror was repeating the plaintiff's theme from closing argument.

2. Reflections.

The media reports generally suggested that Coach's claim was merely one of defamation or slander (for example, look at the headline today quoted above, and another piece in the same edition saying "an Orange County jury awarded Emme $700,000 in his defamation-and-slander suit against Martinez". [D. Parsons, "Pitcher's Father on a Losing Streak", Los Angeles Times, p. B3].) Accordingly, it appeared his compensatory damages claim on this theory was largely in jeopardy when he testified this week that he did not lose any pay, any job, any job prospects, or any medical expenses. (January 25, 2005, post.) (Note: when defamation relates to one's profession, the law will imply some damages.)

However, as indicated here yesterday, Mr. Emme's lawsuit also sought damages for "malicious prosecution", i.e. when the parent unsuccessfully sued the coach earlier. Under this theory, the Coach could seek recovery of damages sustained in defending the prior lawsuits that were dismissed, which could have comprised a large measure of his claimed losses. However, the plot thickens. One of the jurors explained: "We awarded those amounts based on the damage to his reputation and the effect on his past and future earnings." (D. McKibben, "Corona del Mar High Coach Wins Big in Slander Suit", Los Angeles Times, p. B1.)

The defense lawyer indicated that the final chapter on this story might not have been written yet. "[T]he compensatory damages, which are intended to reimburse a victim for economic loss, were high because jurors didn't realize they could award punitive damages, which are intended to serve as a punishment." (Id.) I expect that he might bring a post-trial motion to set aside the verdict based on the juror's comments (among other things), an appeal or both.