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Reboot in Case Over Fire at Sterling-Owned Building

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A California appeals court ruled that a $15 million jury award for fire damages to a tenant of a building owned by former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was excessive, affirming the trial court's order for a new trial.

Robyn Cohen, a commercial actress renting an apartment in Sterling's West Hollywood building, sued Sterling in the Los Angeles County Superior Court after the building caught fire from an electrical failure in 2009.

Besides widespread code violations and a largely nonfunctioning alarm system discovered in a post-fire inspection, Cohen claimed that the apartment manager told her the building was not responsible for her losses and would not reimburse her for even temporary lodging - and then threatened to evict her if she refused to pay rent for her destroyed apartment.

Cohen sued Sterling for breaches of contract and warranty of habitability, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. A jury awarded her $15 million in punitive damages, but the trial court found the award excessive and granted a new trial to determine the new amount.

The court also ordered a retrial on Cohen's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as on the jury's verdict that Sterling breached warranty of habitability.

Both Cohen and Sterling appealed to the Second Appellate District.

In a 30-page unpublished opinion issued Tuesday, the appeals court affirmed the new trial for all the issues save Cohen's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, for which it found no substantial evidence.

"The trial court correctly concluded that plaintiff did not establish that the post-fire conduct was either extreme or outrageous," Presiding Judge Paul Turner wrote for the 3-judge panel. "Further, the trial court correctly ruled that there was no substantial evidence defendant's pre-fire conduct met the standard for an intentional emotional distress infliction claim. There was no substantial evidence defendant intended to cause, or engaged in conduct with the realization it would culminate in, mental distress of a very serious kind."

And while both Cohen and Sterling challenged the trial court's decision to shave the punitive damages award from $15 million to just over $5.8 million, Turner said evidence of Sterling's liability - admitted malice toward Cohen and keeping her security deposit after her apartment had been destroyed - warranted some punitive damages.

However, given the need for a new trial the appeals panel declined Sterling's request to affirm the trial court's finding that the $15 million award was excessive.

"There is a complete uncertainty as to the evidence that will be presented during the new trial," Turner wrote. "Whatever is the effect of the trial court's excessiveness finding in connection with the first trial, it is speculative as to its impact in the retrial. We cannot afford defendant any effectual relief as to the punitive damage amount because common sense tells us there will be a different retrial."

As of April 2014, the 80-year-old Sterling owned 162 properties in the Los Angeles area.

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