On October 7, 2022, a San Bernardino, California, jury awarded $33.85 million to a man’s five daughters after the man’s untimely death. During an altercation with transportation workers employed by the city of Victorville, the man was struck in the head with a shovel and died.[i] The city and San Bernardino County sheriff deputies alleged the man, Jose Ruvalcaba, had assaulted the three workers as they were painting roadway lines.[ii]
The defense did accept liability after inconsistences were discovered in witness statements made to law enforcement. Attorneys for Mr. Ruvalcaba’s children argued the workers used “unnecessary force” against an unarmed individual and that a “reasonable” compensation for the loss of his life was over $60 million (although $300 million was “conceivable” according to plaintiffs’ counsel, given that $60 million amount could be multiplied by the number of five daughters).[iii] Plaintiffs’ counsel rejected the argument that such an amount of money could never realistically be spent by these plaintiffs.
The defense countered that Mr. Ruvalcaba, a transient methamphetamine addict at the time of his death, did not have a sufficiently close relationship with any of his five daughters to justify an excessive award. Therefore, the jury was tasked solely with deciding the amount of damages (with the defense urging not more than $500,000 per plaintiff). The ultimate verdict of $33.85 million amounted to $6.77 million per plaintiff.
An admitted liability case, especially a wrongful death, can still turn on many unrelated issues. It is always best to embrace the uncomfortable. In this instance, someone died. Attorneys should acknowledge the raw emotion plaintiffs are experiencing and take care to delicately argue the plaintiffs were not sufficiently close to their father to predict they would have remained estranged. Attorneys could even share emotions they are personally experiencing about being tasked to address the unthinkable using common sense (just as each juror must) and put a value on a life.
Especially in an admitted liability case, accepting responsibility is crucial. While it is difficult and uncomfortable to stand before a jury and say, “We accept responsibility, and we are here for you to hold us accountable,” saying those words (with sincerity, of course) goes a long way toward defusing the juror anger that is at the root of every Nuclear Verdict.
Judging the value of one’s life to others is hard. Of course, it is nothing close to what this family has gone through, but it is still difficult for defense counsel. If the jury sees an attorney who makes an effort and is truly emotionally invested in such a case, they will likely be more receptive to what the attorney has to say.
It is also important to personalize the defendant, no matter who the defendant is, in every case. Especially in cases involving a death, the human element plays a massive role in a jury’s decision. Allowing the jury to see a defendant as a human is very important.
[i] Closing Arguments, Estate of Ruvalcaba v. City of Victorville, CVN, (Oct. 6, 2022), https://cvn.com/proceedings/estate-of-jose-ruvalcabra-v-city-of-victorville-trial-2022-09-29.
[ii] Von Quednow, Cindy, Man Who Accosted Victorville City Employees Dies From Injuries Sustained When Worker Struck Him With Shovel: Sheriff’s Officials, KTLA, (Aug. 22, 2018), https://ktla.com/news/local-news/man-who-accosted-victorville-city-employees-dies-from-injuries-sustained-when-worker-struck-him-with-shovel-sheriffs-officials/
[iii] Closing Arguments, Estate of Ruvalcaba v. City of Victorville, CVN, (Oct. 6, 2022), https://cvn.com/proceedings/estate-of-jose-ruvalcabra-v-city-of-victorville-trial-2022-09-29.