Two Defendants, Two Different Outcomes
This action was brought by plaintiff, 41-year-old Mr. Rubalcaba, after he was terminated from his job at Santa Cruz City School District. Plaintiff worked as a custodian for four years; in 2016 he suffered an on-the-job back injury and returned to work with basic accommodations.[i] Mr. Rubalcaba resumed his duties with these accommodations for nine months and was able to fulfill essential job duties, but was ultimately fired by Santa Cruz City School District.[ii] The plaintiff thereafter commenced this lawsuit, naming both the Santa Cruz School District as well as the workers compensation administrator as defendants. Plaintiff’s claimed damages included non-economic damages and punitive damages. No special damages were claimed. [iii]
Plaintiff alleged his employer, (“the District”) discriminated against him because of his back injury. He alleged the District and the workers compensation administrator, Keenan & Associates (“Keenan” or “the defendant”) both failed to provide reasonable accommodations, and the District, due to his injury, failed to engage in a timely and good faith interactive process regarding the accommodations needed.[iv] The District settled with the plaintiff before trial, asserting that it mistakenly believed he was too injured for further accommodations to be fruitful, based on misleading information provided to it by Keenan (who remained a party in trial)[v]. Keenan, on the other hand, asserted it was the District’s decision and responsibility alone.[vi]
At trial, the plaintiff proved Keenan failed to provide proper documentation to the District that would have allowed him to continue working for them.[vii] Further, plaintiff was able to demonstrate not only that Keenan failed to provide proper medical supporting documentation to the District but also that Keenan was purposefully withholding medical information it was obligated to provide and destroying evidence to escape responsibility. The plaintiff also established if the District had received the medical supporting documentation in Keenan’s possession, the District would have kept plaintiff employed.[viii] Keenan was ultimately found liable under a civil conspiracy theory of liability, and the jury’s award of more than $34M delivered a message in the form of a Nuclear Verdict®.
Contrary to Keenan, who denied all liability, the District admitted liability on all causes of action, settling pretrial for $1M. Keenan did admit it failed to provide proper medical supporting documents that would have allowed plaintiff to remain employed, but contended it was a simple oversight rather than intentional malfeasance.[ix] Keenan blamed the District for firing plaintiff and denied destroying any evidence. Before trial, Keenan offered plaintiff $700,000.00. On the morning of the punitive damages phase, Keenan offered $15,000,000 million, which plaintiff rejected.[x] The jury ultimately awarded plaintiff $35,508,000.00. Most of the award came in the form of punitive damages, for the jury awarded $27,600.000.[xi]
How Accepting Responsibility Saved the District and Cost Keenan
The number one reason for Nuclear Verdicts® is anger.[xii] When a jury is angry enough, they are motivated to use their verdict to send a message. The only way to avoid a Nuclear Verdict® is therefore to defuse anger.[xiii] One of the most important steps in defusing juror anger is accepting responsibility, because jurors want to see accountability. Here, Keenan did not accept responsibility, and in fact blamed the District. This appears to have only served to further anger the jury especially in light of the District’s clear acceptance of responsibility. While it may feel uncomfortable to accept responsibility while still denying liability, doing so allows the jury to focus on the facts more than their emotions. Especially where punitive damages are on the table (as was the case here), accepting responsibility is critical. Ultimately, the jury in this case appears to have viewed the plaintiff with sympathy and used their verdict as an opportunity to punish Keenan and send a message.
The Tyson & Mendes Nuclear Verdict® Defense Methods require the defendant to accept responsibility to defuse juror anger. Accepting responsibility for something allows the defendant to be the most reasonable party in the room, which enhances credibility while inviting the jury to consider whether the plaintiff should also be accepting responsibility. Even in contested liability cases, accepting responsibility for something (for example, making the best decision based on available information) plays a pivotal role in defusing juror anger. This case is an example of the expensive message an angry jury is capable of delivering, and serves as another important reminder that defusing juror anger is crucial.
[i] School custodian wrongfully terminated after injury. $35M. Santa Cruz County. – Jury Verdict Alert. (n.d.). https://www.juryverdictalert.com/jury-verdicts/item/civil-rights/submitted-item-70
[xii] Robert F. Tyson, Nuclear Verdicts: Defending Justice for All (2020)