A Los Angeles Superior Court judge affirmed a $6-million civil judgment against the Torrance Police Department, validating a jury's verdict that officers covered up a colleague's responsibility for a fatal traffic accident in 1984.
Judge Abby Soven earlier this week rejected the city's motions to overturn the verdict, reduce the award or order a new trial.
Soven's rulings appear to set the stage for protracted appeals by Torrance and for a battle between the city and its insurance carrier over who should pay the judgment. Attempts to settle the case thus far have failed.
A jury awarded the judgment in September to John Rastello of San Pedro, whose 19-year-old son, Kelly, was killed in a collision with a vehicle driven by off-duty Torrance Police Sgt. Rollo Green.
Jurors found at the end of a six-week trial that Green's fellow officers protected him when they failed to take a blood-alcohol test after the late-night collision on Rolling Hills Road.
The city of Torrance filed its appeal Wednesday and also posted a $9.9-million bond--1 1/2 times the verdict plus interest--to guarantee the judgment while the appeal proceeds through the courts. The city, which represented all of the plaintiffs but Green, paid $52,000 to acquire the bond.
The bulk of the judgment, $5.6 million, was awarded against the Police Department, Chief Donald Nash and five officers. Because Green was off duty, Green was ordered to pay the remainder himself.
Torrance's lawyers had argued that public agencies and officers are exempt from requirements that they post a bond during any appeal. But Soven agreed with John Rastello's lawyers, who said the officers were not acting in their official capacities when they took part in the cover-up and that the defendants therefore should post the bond.
The judge rejected several other motions from both sides:
- The city asked Soven to overturn the verdict and find that there was insufficient evidence for any award against the Police Department and the officers.
- The city argued that it should be granted a new trial because $5.6 million was an excessive judgment against the Police Department, Chief Nash and five officers. The defendants said that, in similar cases, appellate courts had never upheld an award of more than $1 million.
- The city said that the $2.5-million portion of the verdict awarded for pain and suffering of Rastello's wife, Geraldine, should be overturned. Geraldine Rastello died before the trial.
- Green's lawyers asked the judge to throw out the $380,000 judgment against their client and to order a new trial.
- Rastello's lawyers asked that more than $1 million in interest be added to the judgment from the time of the accident until the verdict, more than five years later.
The city plans to raise many of the same issues on appeal, City Atty. Ken Nelson said.
Meanwhile, the city is battling its insurance company over who is liable for the bulk of the judgment.
Protective National Insurance Co. recently told the city that it does not believe that it is responsible for the city's portion of the damages. The insurance company said in a letter to the city that it will not provide coverage because the Police Department's actions were intentional, not accidental.
Nelson disagreed, saying: "We think this is a proper cost that the insurance company should pick up."
The city may sue the insurance company if it does not honor its obligations, Nelson said.
The Omaha-based insurer has not responded to numerous requests for comment.