The Counsellor's Corner
I am a big fan of dogs, however I think a jury got a little carried away when it awarded Six Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars to a man hired to take care of a dog after the dog was shot to death by a security guard.
This case involved a dog named Bud, and took place at a private home in Laurel Canyon which is patrolled by Westec Security. The owners of the home are the Rissottos, and as they were getting ready to head out of town for a vacation in 1995, they called Westec to let them know that there would be someone coming to their home from time to time to care for their dog. They further requested that Westec keep a special eye on the home while they were gone.
On the fateful day, Robert Tuck, the designated dog watcher, came to take Bud for a walk and give him some food. As they were on their walk, an armed Westec security guard, Mr. Martinez, stopped by the Rissottos home and saw an unfamiliar truck in the driveway. When Mr. Tuck and Bud returned, Mr. Martinez asked Mr. Tuck for some form of identification and Mr. Tuck refused, and took Bud into the house. At this time, Mr. Martinez requested backup.
Unfortunately, the door to the Rissotto home was left slightly open, and Bud headed outside in the direction of Mr. Martinez and his recently arrived backup. At this point, the stories differ as the guards claimed that Bud came at them, while Mr. Tuck claimed that Bud just ran out the door. Mr. Martinez emptied his gun into Bud, shooting him three times and killing him. He then made a citizen's arrest of Mr. Tuck for burglary of all things, and handcuffed Mr. Tuck. The police arrived approximately one hour later and Mr. Tuck was released.
Mr. Tuck then sued Mr. Martinez and Westec for emotional distress, battery, assault, false imprisonment and negligence.
After listening to the evidence and deliberating, the jury awarded Robert Tuck $650,000. Late last month, the Court of Appeal upheld this verdict, acknowledging that while there were allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of several jurors, it did not amount to juror misconduct. The Court of Appeal vote was two to one, and I find myself siding with dissenting Justice Richard Neal who, while noting that Mr. Tuck was awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages, indicated that "for this one-hour encounter, in which plaintiff suffered no significant injuries, the jury awarded plaintiff $150,000 in compensatory damages. This is about 3 to 5 times what the average citizen earns in a year of hard work. It compensated plaintiff at an hourly rate of $150,000 -- not bad work if you can get it." Justice Neal believed that passion and prejudice is what led the jury to its runaway verdict as opposed to reason.
The alleged improper statements attributed to the jurors included allegations that they discussed Rodney King, the need to "send a message" to police, the need to teach police a lesson, and the fact that Westec was a "white-owned company" and Mr. Tuck was also white. I'm not quite sure why the jurors would have been discussing teaching police a lesson, as Westec was the main defendant here.
The Court of Appeal decided that these alleged juror statements were not crucial to the verdict and that the dollar amount awarded was appropriate.
This makes me wonder whether Bud's owner did the right thing in settling with Westec for $30,000. While they didn't suffer for an hour as did Mr. Tuck, they did lose their dog, and if Mr. Tuck's suffering was worth $650,000, the loss of Bud was probably worth more than $30,000.
I am strongly in favor of the jury system, as I believe that juries most often make the correct call. However, it is the job of the Court of Appeal to straighten things out when a jury gets a little carried away, and I believe that was the case here. As Justice Neal stated, Mr. Tuck suffered and the use of the word `suffered' can even be argued, for one hour. It wasn't his dog that got gunned down before his eyes. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and decided to stand up to the Westec employee for whatever reason, choosing not to provide him with identification, which led to the escalation of events which led to his being arrested for one hour. To reward him with $650,000 is ridiculous and clearly indicates an award based on emotion rather than on fact.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.