TortsProf Blog

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Southwestern Law School

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I Don't Remember "Prevent the Defendant from Selling Her Life Story" as a Gore Guidepost

An interesting rationale for punitive damages, and what seems like a bit of a stretch on foreseeability against a murderer's employer, both presented in one case:

A jury Monday awarded $6 million in actual damages and $100 million in punitive damages to the family of a man fatally poisoned by his wife, a toxicologist who worked for San Diego County at the time.

So - to be clear - the punitives are only against the wife (whose responsibility was set at 75% with the County's at 25%), who was a meth addict having an affair with her boss, and who

staged an "American Beauty" suicide scene at her La Jolla apartment, according to prosecutors, to make it look like her 26-year-old husband killed himself.

Fresh red rose petals were found around the victim's head and shoulders, and his wedding photograph was propped up near his head in a scene reminiscent of one in the 1999 movie.

Why $100 million?  Not because of the details of the tort exactly, but because the details of the tort were so lurid that the jury feared her making a bunch of money.  From the story, anyway, it appears that was the sole basis for the size of the award:

Another juror said she voted for Rossum to pay $200 million in punitive damages so there wouldn't be any chance that she'd get away with any money.

* * *

After awarding $6 million in actual damages, the jury heard from one witness in the punitive damages phase of the trial.

Melissa St. James, a marketing professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, testified that Rossum was a "notorious" criminal who could sell the rights to her story for $2.5 million or more. She also said Rossum's future earning potential was "unlimited."

As for the county's responsibility (set at 25%), it's interesting as well:

Senior Deputy County Counsel Deborah A. McCarthy said she is confident that the jury award will be reversed on appeal.

"It is not the duty of the county of San Diego to prevent a wife from murdering her husband," McCarthy said outside court. "If this case stands, it will expand public liability in a way the state of California never envisioned."

* * *

McCarthy told the jury that Rossum was a killer who just happened to be a county employee at the time she committed her crime.

Officials at the Medical Examiner's Office were told they didn't have to do a drug test or a background check on Rossum when she applied to become a toxicologist because she was already a student worker, McCarthy said.

Even if a drug test had been done, there is no evidence that Rossum would have failed it, she said, adding that Rossum, a methamphetamine addict, relapsed only a week or two before she murdered her husband.

But one juror said the majority of the panel felt the county was remiss in not doing a background or drug check on Rossum.

It's a good example of a jury finding employer responsibility even in the absence (I assume anyway) of a respondeat superior finding.

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» County 25% responsible for employee's murder of husband from Overlawyered
In a sensational 2002 murder trial with echoes of the film "American Beauty", Kristin Rossum was found guilty of poisoning husband Gregory de Villers and trying to make his death look like a suicide. Now... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 26, 2006 10:04:22 PM

» Punitives Cut in Poisoning Case from TortsProf Blog
Several months ago a jury awarded $100 million in punitive damages against a woman who poisoned her husband and set up the scene to look somewhat like American Beauty. The punitives were awarded specifically to ensure that she not profit [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2006 3:12:43 AM


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