Corona del Mar High Coach Big Winner in Slander Suit
A Newport Beach father defamed his son’s high school baseball coach, an Orange County civil jury concluded Thursday, awarding the coach $700,000 in damages.
The Superior Court verdicts, reached after less than six hours of deliberations, could help protect youth coaches from so-called “disappointment” lawsuits by parents who claim that coaches fail to help young athletes reach their potential.
“This is a great vindication for me and a tremendous victory for coaches all over the country,” said John Emme, 41, an English teacher and baseball coach at Corona del Mar High School. “I hope this verdict tells people that disappointment lawsuits shouldn’t exist and that it makes parents leery of filing them.”
Marc Martinez sued Emme for harming his son’s college and professional prospects by making him pitch too often, and later for allegedly making false statements in a newspaper article about the youngster’s statistics and performance. Both suits were dropped, and Emme filed a $1-million countersuit for malicious prosecution and slander.
Martinez, an emergency room doctor, appeared stoic as the initial verdict of $500,00 in compensatory damages was announced Thursday. He did not return to the Santa Ana courtroom in the afternoon when the jury awarded the coach $200,000 in punitive damages.
Manuel Dominguez, Martinez’s attorney, said the damages were “certainly higher than the case deserved.”
Both in the courtroom and after the trial, some jurors said they were confused by the judge’s instructions. Dominguez speculated that the compensatory damages, which are intended to reimburse a victim for economic loss, were high because jurors didn’t realize they could award punitive damages, which are intended to serve as punishment.
But juror Jill Hillabrant of Coto de Caza said the jury awarded the surprisingly high amount because they wanted to make a statement.
“I think he was an overzealous parent and I think he just went too far,” said Hillabrant, whose son played high school and college baseball. “We awarded those amounts based on the damage to his reputation and the effect on his past and future earnings.
“I just think a lot of these parents are living their dreams through their kids,” Hillabrant said. “I think this case should send a message to those parents.”
In his suit, Emme characterized Martinez’s son, J.D., as an outstanding young man and a high school athlete of average ability, while the father had “grandiose ambitions for J.D.’s future as a collegiate and perhaps professional baseball player.”
J.D. played two years of varsity baseball for Emme. Martinez testified that he pulled his son off the team before his senior season in 2001 because he thought Emme would make his son throw too many pitches.
Martinez also testified that Emme had told him he was going to “close the door” on his son’s chances of becoming a college pitcher if he took his criticism of Emme to the Newport Mesa School District. Martinez later complained to the principal, district officials and the school board and then filed two lawsuits.
Emme, who has won two Southern Section titles and four league titles in his seven years at Corona del Mar, said he is relieved to have the four-year ordeal behind him. He begins practice in two weeks.
“It’ll be nice to just worry about the count, the score and filling out the lineup card,” he said.
Emme said he also was pleased that he could now explore possible college coaching jobs, which he had not been able to do because of the litigation.
The younger Martinez did not appear in court during the week-long trial. Martinez previously said his son had tried out for the University of San Diego baseball team in 2003 but didn’t make the cut. But in a deposition, J.D., now 21, indicated he never tried out for the team.
“J.D’s certainly the innocent victim here,” Emme said. “It’s sad. I feel for him. He’s missed out on a lot.”