There was a recent case before the Stockton court involving a local grower who employed a man - we will call him John - for over 20 years. John was a good worker. John did, however, drink too much and too often. As a result John had ongoing domestic problems with his wife, including an incident in which he chased her through an orchard in the middle of the night. Another time the grower's office manager had to take in John's wife and children because they were afraid to go home. Numerous other incidents of spousal abuse followed.
One year, during the critical harvest period, John was placed in jail for domestic violence and not released until after the crop was harvested. The grower was left in a terrible jam as the grower had no one else to run the specialized equipment John operated and which took some time to learn to operate. Indeed, John's most important role to the grower was harvesting the crop, as John was the only one of the grower's employees who could operate the specialized equipment.
As a result of the attack on his wife, John missed the entire harvest season after being arrested for domestic violence. The following August, just before harvest, the grower wanted John to make a commitment to behave himself and not get thrown in jail and thus be unavailable.
John became upset because the grower was making this request, walked off the job and claimed he was fired. John was not fired. This was untrue. John refused more than 20 written requests for him to come back to work. John sued for wrongful termination and the matter went to a jury trial.
The grower was in such bad shape physically that his deposition could only be taken for a very short period of time and could never be completed. Before actual trial, the grower was trying to get ready to be a witness, suffered a heart attack and passed away in the hospital.
At trial, the judge ruled the grower could not let the jury know about John's prior jail term, his wife-beating charges, or that he was in jail for any reason as this would be too prejudicial.
Instead, the judge ruled that all the farmer could say was that John was unavailable for "personal reasons," which of course, could mean anything and most importantly was simply not true.
The jury rendered a verdict of more than $90,000 in favor of John. In addition, the judge awarded almost $200,000 in attorney fees, which together with interest approached $400,000. John's attorneys are still not satisfied and want to be paid even more money and are going back to court for additional attorney fees.
After the trial, certain members of the jury were shocked to find out that John was not off work for personal reasons, but, in fact was in jail for beating up his wife the prior year. The judge told the jury John was off work because he was on personal leave, which was simply untrue.
Subsequently, certain members of the jury were shocked to learn that all the grower wanted was the assurance that John would not beat up his wife anymore and get thrown in jail. Had the jury known the truth, the jury verdict would no doubt have been in favor of the grower and against John.
This was terribly unjust by reason of the fact the jury was not permitted to hear the true evidence.
The grower and others, are shocked at this injustice, and are asking the domestic violence can be admitted in trial and the jury can hear all the evidence. This would be a modification of existing law which permits a judge to withhold evidence from a jury trial that the court feels is too prejudicial.
- Michael Babitzke is a Stockton attorney who specializes in personal injury, real property, domestic, and business and probate matters.