Los Angeles Team Secures Reversal of $4.7 Million Verdict in Sexual Harassment Suit Where Multiple Erroneous Rulings Resulted in Unfair Trial
Los Angeles, Calif. (March 17, 2020) - Los Angeles Partners John L. Barber and Raul L. Martinez recently secured a reversal of a $4.7 million verdict that was entered in 2016 following a trial on sexual harassment claims. After determining that the trial court made several erroneous rulings, the Court of Appeal of the State of California held that “multiple errors combined to cause an unfair trial.”
In the underlying action, Mr. Barber, chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Labor and Employment Practice, and Mr. Martinez, vice-chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Appellate Practice, represented the Community Hospital of Long Beach (Community Hospital). The plaintiffs, who worked as nurses at Community Hospital, alleged that their supervisor created a hostile work environment and wrongfully discharged them under the pretext that they had abused a patient. Although the plaintiffs found new jobs at another hospital, they lost these jobs after one year when the State of California (State) filed criminal charges against them for the patient abuse.
The causes of action against Community Hospital that reached the jury were (1) sexual harassment, (2) sexual orientation discrimination, (3) failure to investigate and prevent harassment and discrimination, (4) retaliation, (5) wrongful termination in violation of public policy, (6) defamation, and (7) negligent supervision. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages totaling $4,734,973. Messrs. Barber and Martinez then filed an appeal.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal of the State of California (Court) determined that the trial court erred in key evidentiary rulings. First, the lower court granted motions in limine to exclude all references to the fact that the plaintiffs were acquitted of criminal charges related to their alleged patient abuse. Nevertheless, during the trial, the plaintiffs and their attorney repeatedly argued that the plaintiffs had cleared their names. The Court reasoned that the admission of evidence regarding the plaintiffs having been cleared was inadmissible and led the jury to believe that the plaintiffs’ termination by our client was, indeed, pretextual.
Moreover, the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting letters concerning the plaintiffs’ supervisor because the letters constituted inadmissible hearsay, noting also that the trial court gave contradictory jury instructions regarding these inadmissible letters. The Court concluded that the “plaintiffs’ repeated reliance on the three inadmissible letters had its intended effect of swaying the jury.”
In addition to determining that the trial court made erroneous evidentiary rulings, the Court held that the plaintiffs presented insufficient evidence on their wrongful termination, defamation, and negligent supervision claims.
On the issue of damages, the Court concluded that the jury improperly awarded damages arising from the plaintiffs’ terminations from the jobs that they obtained after leaving Community Hospital. The Court reasoned that these terminations had nothing to do with their discharge from Community Hospital and resulted solely from the State’s decision to prosecute them for patient abuse. In our motion for a partial nonsuit at the close of the plaintiffs’ case, and in our motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict after the trial, we had asserted that the plaintiffs were not entitled to these damages. The trial court, however, had denied both motions.
Ultimately, the Court concluded that the multiple erroneous rulings at trial conveyed a clear message to the jury that Community Hospital was liable. “This was unfair,” the Court stated. “Given the numerosity of the errors, and their quality, we conclude it is reasonably probable the jury would have reached a different result without them.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment that had been entered against our client.
Mr. Barber has vigorously represented this client since 2009, when the case was initially filed, with Mr. Martinez joining when the case went to appeal. Both are pleased that justice has finally been served in this matter.