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Thompson v. Hughart

June 24, 2003

IN THE MATTER OF: HENRIETTA ANN THOMPSON, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE HEIRS AND NEXT OF KIN OF MICHAEL DAVID DEMO, APPELLANT,
v.
LENNON VIRGIL HUGHART, RESPONDENT.



Goodhue County District Court File No. CX99980

Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.*fn1

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

A jury may find by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant wrongfully and intentionally caused the death of another and also find that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with deliberate disregard for the victim's rights or safety.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Willis, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

Appellant challenges the district court's denial of her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, in the alternative, a new trial, arguing that intentionally and wrongfully causing the victim's death constitutes deliberate disregard for the victim's rights or safety as a matter of law. By notice of review, respondent challenges the district court's denial of his motions for JNOV or a new trial and for remittitur, arguing that (1) the evidence does not support the jury's verdict that he intentionally and wrongfully caused the victim's death and (2) the compensatory-damages award is excessive. We affirm.

FACTS

Appellant Henrietta Ann Thompson sued respondent Lennon Virgil Hughart, alleging that Hughart shot to death Thompson's son, Michael David Demo, during an outdoor party on Prairie Island in July 1999. Thompson's initial complaint, filed in September 1999, sought compensatory damages only. Hughart was charged with murder and assault in connection with Demo's death, and Thompson's suit was stayed pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings. After a jury acquitted Hughart of all criminal charges in May 2000, Thompson moved the district court for leave to amend her complaint to include a claim for punitive damages. The district court granted Thompson's motion, finding that she had offered "prima facie evidence" in support of her motion as is required by Minn. Stat. § 549.191 (2002).

The evidence at trial showed that (1) on the night of Demo's death, he and Hughart were alone together and close to one another while they walked through a wooded area; (2) Demo was shot to death with a.38 caliber gun from a distance of one to three inches; (3) Hughart fled the area where Demo had been shot and went to his cousin's house, telling his cousin that he "was in trouble"; (4) in March 2001, Hughart was stopped by police while driving, and police found a.38 caliber gun in his car; and (5) a firearms expert "couldn't exclude" the gun found in Hughart's car as the gun that killed Demo. Demo was survived by two sons, now ages seven and six.

Hughart called no witnesses and presented no exhibits, but he testified when Thompson called him as a witness. Hughart denied killing Demo and testified that on the night of Demo's death, he did not argue with Demo and did not have a gun with him.

The jury found that Hughart "wrongfully and intentionally" caused Demo's death and awarded compensatory damages of $515,389.36. The compensatory-damage award consisted of (1) $50,000 for loss of "counsel, guidance, aid, advice, comfort, assistance, protection, and companionship" up to the time of the verdict; (2) $450,000 for such loss "reasonably certain to occur in the future"; and (3) $15,389.36 for economic losses up to the time of the verdict. The jury awarded no damages for future economic losses and no punitive damages.

Following the jury verdicts, Thompson moved for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial. Hughart also moved for JNOV or a new trial, as well as for remittitur. The district court ...


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