(CN) – A California appeals court overturned the million-dollar award to a man whose son was shot and killed by his girlfriend’s ex-husband during a late-night, alcohol-fueled clash.
Jennifer Sanchez and her new boyfriend, Joseph Burton, arrived at the home of her ex-husband, Gary Sanner, at 2 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2008. The couple was intoxicated, and Burton’s daughter had driven them.
Their sons from previous relationships, Shayne Thompson and Joseph Eric Burton, also came along in a second truck.
Sanner’s dog began barking when the trucks pulled up to his small house in rural Descanso. The noise woke Sanner, who had also been drinking that night.
He called 911, telling the operator: “I have a loaded shotgun, and I’m not letting them harm me.”
When the operator asked why he feared the people in the trucks, he answered: “Because one of them is my estranged wife’s boyfriend, and she thinks I have something of hers that she wants. They’re all intoxicated and I will start shooting.”
Shayne went around the back with Burton’s 18-year-old son, whose name is abbreviated in the decision as J.E. They did not knock, and 16-year-old Shayne opened the window.
Sanner fired his shotgun, mortally wounding J.E.
After the gunshot, Sanchez pounded on the front window, yelling, “Gary, Gary, stop!”
Sanner heard someone say, “Break the window.” He shot through the window, seriously wounding Sanchez.
Sanchez and Burton sued Sanner for negligence and wrongful death. Sanner claimed self-defense, but a retired police officer torpedoed the maneuver in his expert testimony for Burton and Sanchez. Scott Reitz spent more than 29 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, with significant experience in deadly force.
After the trial judge overruled multiple objections to Reitz’s testimony, the jury found Sanner 75 percent negligent in J.E.’s death and liable for Sanchez’s injuries. He was ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in total damages.
California’s Fourth Appellate District reversed the decision, however, finding that the former cop should not have been allowed to testify.
“Under well-established law, Reitz’s opinion testimony was inadmissible because it usurped the jury’s role,” Justice Judith McConnell wrote for a three-judge panel in San Diego.
“Sanner did not raise any circumstance the jury may not understand in conjunction with his necessity defense,” he added. “Reitz’ testimony inappropriately drew legal conclusions concerning the objective reasonableness of Sanner’s conduct.”