The California Court of Appeals for the Second District recently upheld a $5.42 million award to a plaintiff following her being raped by an employee in a West Hollywood club bathroom.Defendant 696 North Robertson, LLC owns and operates a West Hollywood bar and dance club called Here Lounge. The defendant appealed from a judgment based on the jury’s award of $5.42 million in damages to plaintiff Janice H. for failing to use reasonable care to protect her from sexual assault in a unisex bathroom stall. The defendant claimed it did not breach a duty to the plaintiff and did not cause the plaintiff’s injury. Therefore, it maintained the court abused its discretion in erroneously admitting irrelevant and prejudicial evidence. Finally, the defendant contended that the jury’s non-economic damages award was excessive and punitive.
In March 2009, the plaintiff was drinking with a friend at bars in West Hollywood. Toward the end of the night, the two were separated. Since they had talked about going to Here Lounge, plaintiff went to Here Lounge to wait for her friend.
The plaintiff arrived at around midnight and sat on the patio drinking water. Then, she went to the restroom area, where no guards were present. Although the club’s policy was to have one or two guards in the restroom area, the guards were allowed to leave their posts when there were very few people in the restroom area.
The plaintiff went into a restroom stall and shut the door. As was common among patrons of Here Lounge, she did not lock the door. While the plaintiff was sitting down, a stranger entered the stall. The man was later identified as Victor Cruz, a bus boy at Here Lounge. When the plaintiff stood up, Victor grabbed her shoulders and pushed her against the wall. Victor forced the plaintiff to orally copulate with him and forcibly had vaginal intercourse with her. Victor took the plaintiff’s virginity.
Bloody and shaken, the plaintiff fled the bar and contacted the police. Here Lounge security found a large puddle of blood in a bathroom stall. Victor’s DNA sample matched the DNA taken from semen on the plaintiff’s dress at the rape treatment center. The plaintiff also identified Victor from a photo lineup.
The plaintiff sued Here Lounge and Victor, alleging (1) sexual battery, (2) negligence, (3) negligent hiring, supervision, and retention, and (4) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Before trial, the court ruled on several motions in limine. The trial court denied Here Lounge’s motion to exclude a police interview of Victor videotaped by law enforcement.
Here Lounge moved to exclude evidence that Here Lounge’s general manager fired Victor’s brother, Mario Cruz, for having sex with a woman in the bathroom when they worked at another bar. After moving to Here Lounge, the manager hired Mario, notwithstanding his history, and subsequently hired Mario’s brother, Victor. The court denied Here Lounge’s motion.
The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and against Here Lounge for negligence and Victor for battery.
On appeal, Here Lounge argued that the plaintiff failed to prove (1) it had a duty to provide security guards in the restroom area, (2) it breached its duty to the plaintiff, and (3) it caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Here Lounge also argued unfair prejudice based on the court’s admission of testimony regarding Mario’s prior sexual misconduct in another workplace and Victor’s videotaped police interview. Lastly, Here Lounge asserted that the noneconomic damages were excessive and punitive in nature.
Regarding the first contention, the appeals court held Here Lounge’s design of the restroom area was intentional and created opportunities for sexual activities concealed behind locked doors. Here Lounge fostered a sexually charged atmosphere and had notice of an obvious pattern of sexual conduct in the restroom area. Here Lounge’s managers knew that sexual encounters within a restroom stall could be nonconsensual. Under these circumstances, Here Lounge had a duty to ensure safety by undertaking minimally burdensome security measures, like requiring one of its security guards to remain posted in the restroom area as the club emptied out.
Regarding the second contention, the appeals court first explained that a breach occurs when the defendant’s conduct falls below the standard of care. The standard of care here involved securing the club’s unisex restroom with a security guard during open hours. Testimony at trial established that there was no security guard in the restroom area when the plaintiff entered, although security guards were posted in the restroom area earlier in the night. Thus, substantial evidence supported the breach.
Regarding the third contention, the court concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding of causation. Based on the evidence presented, it was reasonable to conclude that had a security guard been present in the restroom area when the plaintiff entered, the assault and rape would not have occurred. There was no dispute that security guards stationed in the restroom had a clear view of the ADA stalls and would have seen Victor follow the plaintiff into the bathroom stall. The security guards all testified that if someone followed a patron into a single restroom, the guards would intervene.
Regarding the fourth contention, the appeals court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence about Victor’s brother because it was relevant to Here Lounge’s hiring and supervision practices. And regarding the fifth contention, the appeals court explained that the plaintiff did not offer Victor’s videotaped statements for their truth but rather to show Victor’s state of mind to prove consciousness of guilt. Therefore, the statements were not hearsay, and the court did not abuse its discretion in admitting them.
Finally, regarding the final contention, the court first explained that the appeals court should uphold a damages award unless it is so out of line that it shocks the conscience. Here, the jury heard evidence that the rape was violent and traumatic, and it caused the plaintiff to lose her virginity. The plaintiff told the jury she tries to get past what happened to her, but it continues to haunt her. The plaintiff’s expert psychologist testified that the rape caused psychological trauma and diagnosed the plaintiff with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Even the defense expert psychiatrist agreed that the rape was traumatic for the plaintiff and predicted that the plaintiff will experience fear, anxiety, humiliation, and embarrassment for the rest of her life. Given this substantial evidence regarding the plaintiff’s extensive emotional distress, the court could not say the jury’s large award of noneconomic damages shocked the conscience.
For these reasons, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
The sexual assault lawyers at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.
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