Ex-St. Louis Officer's 7.5M Award Could be at Risk

May 21, 2014
Actions of a juror during trial deliberations may imperil the $7.5 million damage award won by a former city police officer who claimed she suffered retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Actions of a juror during trial deliberations may imperil the $7.5 million damage award won by a former city police officer who claimed she suffered retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.

The problem came after the jury decided in the trial in March that Tanisha Ross-Paige was the victim of retaliation and deserved $300,000 in compensatory damages.

It was during consideration of punitive damages, juror Kevin Hink later told lawyers representing the Board of Police Commissioners, that he pulled out his phone and asked Google "where do punitive damages go?"

He clicked on the first entry, a Wikipedia page, and told his fellow jurors that Ross-Paige would receive some or all of the money, the board's lawyers have said in affidavits in seeking to have the case reopened. The jury awarded $7.2 million in punitive damages.

Hink's alleged "juror misconduct" is not the board's only basis for seeking a new trial.

Lawyers with the Missouri attorney general's office, who represent the police board, also claim jury instructions were flawed and that Ross-Paige did not present enough evidence to support her claims.

They also say that since the state-run board relinquished police control to City Hall, punitive damages are inappropriate because they "cannot punish or deter the alleged wrongdoer."

Jeremy Hollingshead, one of Ross-Paige's lawyers, said Hink had "buyer's remorse."

"He thinks about it over the weekend and he realizes that this is a judgment that maybe is more than he wanted," Hollingshead speculated, before adding, "I'm not sure he really knew what he was getting into."

Ross-Paige filed suit in 2011, claiming her sergeant made repeated and unwanted sexual overtures to his married subordinate. When she complained, the suit said, the sergeant and a lieutenant assigned her to unfavorable shifts, evaluated her differently in performance reviews and denied time off for training that was given to others.

Hink declined to comment Tuesday. He told a Missouri Lawyers Weekly reporter this month that some jurors proposed punitive damages as high as $50 million; he said he was thinking of $1 million to $1.5 million.

After seeing a Ross-Paige lawyer mouth an expletive of amazement when the amount was read, Hink became "sick to my stomach" and realized, he told the Weekly, that the jury awarded too much.

He called the attorney general's office and confessed his online research, in hopes the award could be reduced.

It's not clear whether Hink knew that Ross-Paige's award is likely to be reduced anyway, under limits in Missouri law.

The attorney general's office declined to comment beyond court filings.

One of those filings recently suggested that the award be reduced to between $2.45 million and $2.3 million, depending on how the plaintiff's legal fees are calculated.

In a Post-Dispatch interview immediately after the verdict, Ross-Paige lawyer John Eccher called the verdict "absolutely huge" and said it was the state's highest in that type of case. He estimated then that it would be reduced under the law to about $3 million.

Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson has scheduled a hearing for June 9 at which he said he will be the only one asking questions. He said it will be limited to what influences the jurors felt and "whether outside influences had a dispositive effect on the jury's decision."

He also told both sides not to talk to Hink before then.

In court filings, Ross-Paige's lawyers quote a 2002 Missouri Supreme Court decision in a wrongful-death case that says: "The general rule in Missouri is that a juror's testimony about jury misconduct allegedly affecting deliberations may not be used to impeach the jury's verdict."

Despite that, the high court ruled in the case that a juror's visit to the location of the fatal traffic crash at issue "pertained to a critical issue in the case," and overturned a verdict. The juror had insisted that she never told others what she saw, and that it played no role in deliberations.

The attorney general's office says that under that example, Ross-Paige's lawyers must show that no prejudice resulted from the online search.

In an interview Tuesday, Hollingshead said there may have been no real effect, since the verdict forms already told jurors that his client would receive any punitive damages.

Eccher said Hink's credibility may become an issue, as jurors were told to give up all electronic devices during deliberations, and that, "You must not conduct your own research or investigation into any issues in this case."

Copyright 2014 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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