September 11, 2012
A divided appeals panel has ordered that a $180,000 punitive-damages award in a civil fraud case be reinstated against Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr.
In a decision filed Aug. 31, two of three Superior Court judges directed the trial judge, who had reduced the award to $20,000, to restore the amount decided by the jury in a 2009 trial.
In 1995, Berry arranged for Denise Jackson, whom he was representing in a slip-and-fall lawsuit involving a vacant property at 1553 W. Girard Ave., to gain ownership of the property for a dollar and then sell it to Berry for $1,500.
Jackson said she thought the money was the result of the lawsuit.
During the trial, the property was valued at $180,000.
The jury awarded $9,858.72 – close to the 1995 value of the property – in compensatory damages, and $180,000 – equal to the property’s 2008 value – in punitive damages.
Chester County Court Judge Charles B. Smith, who was brought in because Berry was a Philadelphia judge, slashed the punitive award, saying he believed it was excessive. Smith maintained the compensatory damages.
When Jackson fell on the icy sidewalk in 1993, the property was owned by the estate of Andre Hines, who had died the year before.
No one from Hines’ family had assumed the position of estate administrator, so Berry arranged to have a longtime friend and aide perform the role.
Instead of looking out for the interest of the Hines estate, the friend helped Berry gain ownership of the property, which he had attempted to buy from Hines.
Smith said that the real victim in the case was the Hines estate, and that Jackson had enabled the fraud by failing to read documents she signed.
“The jury’s award of punitives in a ratio of 19-1 should shock the conscience of any trier of fact, when the real estate she complains she never knew had been deeded to her was part of a fraudulent transaction,” Smith wrote during the appeals phase of the case.
Superior Court Judge Judith Ference Olson, in the majority decision, said state law does not set a fixed ratio for punitive damages.
“Since punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant, not compensate the plaintiff, the trial court erred in relying upon the Estate’s allegedly greater ‘entitlement’ in reducing Appellant’s punitive damage award,” Olson wrote.
Berry’s attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said he planned to file a petition Tuesday to reargue the case before the full Superior Court.
“I think the decision is wrong, and it violates due process,” Stretton said.
Berry, who is still a Philadelphia judge, was suspended for five months in 2009 by the state Court of Judicial Discipline for violating ethics rules by running his real estate business from his judicial chambers.