LOS ANGELES (CN) – A jury awarded former sports columnist T.J. Simers $7.1 million on Wednesday, ruling that the Los Angeles Times had made workplace conditions intolerable for the writer after he collapsed on the job.
The superior court verdict comes after a six-week trial and hours of closing arguments during which Simers complained that the paper forced him out after he collapsed in March 2013 while covering the Dodgers and Anaheim Angles spring training for the Times.
Though Simers declined to comment in the hallway outside, he thanked each juror as they filed out of the courtroom. During a brief interview Monday, Simers said he was “exhausted” after the grueling trial.
Speaking on his behalf, employment attorney Carney Shegerian said Simers was “gratified” and felt vindicated by the verdict.
“Mr. Simers was falsely labeled by the Times’ defense attorney during trial as an egotistical and self-centered man who put his interests ahead of that of the readers,” Shegerian said in a statement. “The truth couldn’t have been farther from who Mr. Simers actually is – a great columnist who received 22 years of amazing accolades from the Times.”
The eight women and four men on the jury took the whole day Wednesday to deliberate before delivering the verdict in Judge William MacLaughlin’s downtown courtroom at the end of the day.
They ruled for Simers on claims that the Times pushed him out of the paper because of his age and disability and made working conditions so bad he was forced to resign.
The LA Times will appeal, spokeswoman Hillary Manning said, insisting that Simers’ allegations are unfounded.
“Our editors acted to protect the integrity of the newspaper and to uphold fundamental principles of journalistic ethics,” Manning said. “We will continue to work through the legal system to resolve this matter.”
Simers sued the Times two years ago, claiming it pulled the plug on his decades-long career after doctors told him he had suffered a minor stroke in his hotel room in Phoenix, Ariz.
The columnist said he was later diagnosed with complex migraine syndrome, a “serious disability” that led to the Times putting his writing under increased scrutiny, suspending his column and exiling him to the assignment desk as a blogger.
During the trial, Times’ attorneys Emilio Gonzalez, with Davis Wright, and Linda Savitt, with Ballard Rosenberg, said the paper investigated Simers after finding he used his column to promote a business run by a friend, with whom Simers hoped to develop a TV show.
“This is a case about a man who had a privileged position, abused that privilege, then refused to take any responsibility for his actions,” Gonzalez told the jury during closing arguments this week.
The court heard that Simers had walked away from his $234,000-a-year salary at the LA Times to take a job at the Orange County Register while he was in talks with the Times to sign a new one-year contract.
Simers wrote a column at the Register for $190,000 a year but took a voluntary buyout and retired last year. The Register filed for bankruptcy protection last week.
The Times insisted that, while it wanted to keep one of its most successful Page 2 columnists, Simers had a history of making grammatical errors in his columns, had ignored editors when they asked him to stop using the term “Rathole” in place of Memphis in his stories, and that he had stepped over the line in articles about Angels owner Arte Moreno and Dodgers coach Mark McGwire.
In a May 11, 2013, article cited in court, Simers wrote of the Angels and Mareno: “They are very much like their owner, and as they say, the fish stinks from the head down.”
During rebuttal this week, Simers’ attorney Courtney Rowley said that the Times had cherry-picked a few articles out of thousands that Simers had written over two decades at the paper. Simers was so demoralized by his suspension and the investigation that he felt he had to resign, she said.
To illustrate her point she poured hundreds of silver-wrapped Hershey’s kisses from a bag onto counsel’s table, moving close to the jury box with five of them in her hand.
“They made money off his work for years,” Rowley said.
“When they decided he was too expensive, they wiped this man’s career away,” she continued, returning to the counsel table where she swept the kisses into a wastepaper basket.
During a trial that began on Sept. 14, the 12 jurors have heard testimony from Simers’ daughter, doctor, editors, Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda and a psychologist who testified about testing that indicated Simers could be paranoid.
The Times gave a glimpse into the battles between Simers and his editors. Mike James and another sports editor, John Cherwa, each testified on the stand that Simers had been resistant to writing for the paper’s web edition and was difficult to work with.
Times editors Marc Duvoisin and Davan Maharaj have been present for much of the trial.
Simers claimed that the two men were instrumental in forcing him out of the paper after his collapse and named them in his 2013 complaint along with Times owner Tribune Company and two affiliates.
They were later dismissed from the case, leaving Los Angeles Times Communications as the sole defendant.
The jury awarded $330,358 for past economic loss, $1.8 million for future economic loss, $2.5 million for past noneconomic loss and $2.5 million for future noneconomic loss.