A vice president of legal affairs at Sony Pictures Entertainment and his wife were ordered Thursday to pay more than $500,000 in damages to a woman who claimed that they kept her as an indentured servant.
A Santa Monica jury found James J. Jackson and Elizabeth Jackson liable for subjecting Nena Ruiz to involuntary servitude and for negligence and fraud. Elizabeth Jackson was also deemed liable for assault and battery.
In a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last year, Ruiz, 60, alleged that she often labored 18 hours or more a day on grueling and strange household duties, including heating chicken nuggets and cutting up bananas or pears for two dogs, Stella and Andrew. She said she was paid $300 for a year's work at the Jacksons' Culver City condominium.
James Jackson is a longtime employee of the Sony Corp. unit, handling employment contracts for studio executives. Ruiz's lawyers pointed out Jackson's knowledge of labor law in pressing their case.
Ruiz contended that she had to sleep in a dog bed and that Elizabeth Jackson repeatedly slapped her and pulled her hair.
Ruiz burst into tears when the verdict was announced.
"We're obviously very pleased and gratified and proud of our client for coming forward," said Della Bahan, one of Ruiz's lawyers. "It was a very frightening thing for her to do."
Jackson and his wife -- they recently filed for personal bankruptcy -- declined to comment Thursday.
"Of course, we're very disappointed in the verdict," said their attorney, Jack Daniels. He said the Jacksons were considering appealing.
A spokeswoman for Sony Pictures Entertainment said the company was "disappointed to hear of the result." The spokeswoman called the case "a very personal matter for him and his family."
During the 2 1/2 -week trial, the Jacksons denied any wrongdoing and said Ruiz was neither mistreated nor kept a prisoner in their condo.
Ruiz came to the U.S. from the Philippines in February 2001 to care for James Jackson's ailing mother-in-law, a Filipino citizen living in Sacramento.
After a brief stay in the state capital, Ruiz claimed, she was forced to work for the Jacksons and given a detailed daily schedule that began at 6 a.m. The schedule referred to James Jackson as "Sir Jud."
She fled their condo in February 2002 a day after neighbors called the police to report that Elizabeth Jackson had hit her with a water bottle.
Ruiz filed the suit last year with the help of the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a nonprofit group that assists victims of human trafficking.
In all, the couple was ordered to pay $551,490 in civil damages.
That amount could rise substantially because jurors unanimously found that the Jacksons acted with malice, making Ruiz eligible for punitive damages. The jury will deliberate on those potential damages today.
The U.S. attorney's office has begun a criminal investigation into possible civil rights violations against Ruiz, a spokesman said.