(CN) - A federal judge slashed a jury award of $4 million to $1.25 million for an innocent woman seriously beaten in the neck, face and ribs by a Newark police officer 10 years ago.
Sara Lesende sued the City of Newark and Police Officer Arnold Borrero on Oct. 17, 2006 after an incident during a traffic stop that left her with serious injuries to her neck, face and ribs.
As recounted by U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise in a Nov. 30, 2011 opinion, Lesende had been searching for a parking spot near her Newark home on the morning of Dec. 18, 2004, when off-duty officer Borrero pulled her over.
The plain-clothed cop soon started a loud argument with Lesende, claiming that she had been driving her car unsafely, and eventually produced his badge and gun. Borrero then opened Lesende's car door, climbed on top of her, and beat her with his fists, while a crowd gathered nearby.
Multiple witnesses testified that Borrero savagely assaulted Lesende, and when an elderly bystander tried to intervene, the officer turned his weapon on the man and threatened to kill him.
After additional officers arrived at the scene, Lesende was taken to the police station and held for about 12 hours without counsel, while Borrero repeatedly harassed her, the opinion said.
Lesende was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, released on $10,000 bail, and forced for months to answer the "groundless and frivolous charges," the ruling states.
The Newark Police Department meanwhile intimidated witnesses and, according to Mrs. Lesende's husband, Victor, one cop said that the city would never take action against Borrero.
Court documents also said the city let Borrero lie in court about his lengthy disciplinary history, including 45 charges and multiple times he filed false assault charges or offered "not credible" testimony.
After a five-day trial a jury awarded Mrs. Lesende $2.7 million from the city in June 2011, plus $850,000 from Borrero. It also awarded her husband $75,000.
Newark moved for a new trial or remittitur of the $2.7 million verdict, arguing that the jury was swayed by "passion or prejudice" in its deliberations.
But the "unfortunate" failure of Mrs. Lesende's attorney to timely oppose the motion - despite two extensions - led Debevoise to reduce the verdict to $750,000 on Oct. 7, 2011.
Mrs. Lesende refused to accept the reduction, however, and a second jury in September 2012 awarded her $4 million, which the 3rd Circuit upheld on May 15, 2014.
Newark later moved to remit the verdict to $750,000, arguing that the October order is "the law of the case," and represents "the maximum amount that a reasonable jury could award Lesende based on the evidence presented at both trials."
Debevoise partially granted the motion last week, "to account for the second jury's markedly higher damages award despite that no substantially new evidence was presented."
Considering the "appalling facts" of the case, the judge ordered Mrs. Lesende to accept a $1.25 million remittur, which excludes attorneys' fees and costs, or move for a third trial."This court previously found that 'the $2.7 million award was so grossly excessive as to shock the judicial conscience' and thereby remitted that amount to $750,000," Debevoise wrote. "If $2.7 million was 'so grossly excessive,' $4 million is now grossly excessive. Nevertheless, the second and the first jury verdicts reflect how seriously two juries treated the injuries inflicted on Mrs. Lesende. It causes this court to consider whether it may have undervalued the psychological injuries when it established an appropriate remittitur figure on the first remittitur motion. The court concludes that it did undervalue these injuries and that the $4 million award should be remitted to $1.25 million."
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