Zarrella v. Robinson

Decision Date11 May 1983
Docket NumberNo. 80-112-A,80-112-A
Citation460 A.2d 415
PartiesGerald P. ZARRELLA v. Sidney H. ROBINSON. ppeal.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court
OPINION

MURRAY, Justice.

This is a civil action brought by the plaintiff, Gerald Zarrella, against Sidney Robinson for alienation of affections and criminal conversation. After a trial in Superior Court, a jury returned a verdict for the defendant on the first count, alienation of affections, and for the plaintiff on the second count, criminal conversation. The jury awarded the plaintiff $5,000 compensatory damages and $75,000 punitive damages. Thereafter, on the defendant's motion for a new trial or alternatively, a remittitur, the trial justice ordered a remittitur in the amount of $75,000 or a new trial on the issue of damages. The case is now before us on the plaintiff's appeal from that order.

The plaintiff and Lila Zarrella Robinson (Lila) were married on September 5, 1966. Although their testimony differed substantially regarding the nature of their relationship after that date, it appears that the marriage was a rocky one, to say the least. Lila testified that plaintiff had a hot temper and a jealous nature and that he began slapping and abusing her shortly after the honeymoon. The beatings subsided only during her three pregnancies. Lila described numerous incidents of verbal and physical abuse which apparently occurred more frequently in the later years of the marriage (1973-76) and which finally led her to seek a divorce in March 1976. Several of the confrontations were corroborated by a friend of the couple's, by their part-time housekeeper, and by plaintiff himself. Lila testified that by the time she filed for divorce in March 1976 and plaintiff moved out of their house in West Warwick, she had lost any love or affection that she might have had for him in the past.

The plaintiff testified that he met defendant Robinson through his business around 1970. Subsequently, the two began socializing together with their wives. The couples played tennis and took at least one vacation together in 1974. It was not until sometime in April 1976 that Lila and defendant began seeing each other alone. Their clandestine meetings apparently ripened into an adulterous affair, although at trial both invoked the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the nature of their relationship.

The plaintiff first discovered that Lila and defendant were seeing each other on July 1, 1976. That evening he returned to the West Warwick house where Lila was living with their two children, assaulted Lila, and then proceeded to defendant's house at 2 a.m. and threatened him with a shotgun. The plaintiff was arrested and charged with assault in connection with these incidents.

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff and Lila attempted a reconciliation. They traveled together to Hawaii and Bermuda and resumed marital relations. On September 30, 1976, plaintiff signed a release prepared by his and defendant's attorneys. He agreed to discharge defendant from any possible claims or actions for alienation of affections or criminal conversation arising from incidents that occurred prior to July 5, 1976, in return for defendant's agreement not to press criminal charges in the July 2, 1976 incident.

The attempted reconciliation failed. At a November 1976 meeting, defendant told plaintiff that he loved Lila and intended to pursue the relationship. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff filed for a divorce from Lila. They continued to live together in the marital domicile, although in separate bedrooms, until February 1977 when she moved out. Lila moved in with defendant in May 1977, and her divorce from plaintiff was final at the end of June. On September 16, 1977, she and defendant were married.

After hearing all of the evidence, the trial justice ruled that as a matter of law the general release executed by plaintiff on September 30, 1976 was valid. He instructed the jury that they were to consider only the period following July 5, 1976, in their determination of liability and damages. With regard to damages, he told the jurors that they could award compensatory damages to plaintiff on each count if they found defendant liable. He further instructed that punitive damages could be awarded only if the jury found that "the defendant's willful, adulterous conduct caused or contributed to the alienation of Lila Zarrella's affection for the plaintiff * * *." Neither party objected to the charge on punitive damages.

The jury returned a verdict for defendant on the first count, alienation of affections. However, they found defendant liable on count 2 and awarded plaintiff $5,000 compensatory damages and $75,000 punitive damages for criminal conversation.

The parties filed cross-motions for a new trial; in the alternative, defendant requested a remittitur. The trial justice denied plaintiff's motion. In response to defendant's motion, he ordered a new trial solely on the issue of damages unless plaintiff would remit all of the verdict in excess of $5,000. The plaintiff refused the remittitur and appealed the trial justice's order.

The only question presented for determination by this court is whether the trial justice acted correctly in denying plaintiff's motion for a new trial on count 1 and in granting defendant's motion for a new trial on the issue of damages for criminal conversation.

The duty of a trial justice on a motion for a new trial is well established. The trial justice must review independently all of the material evidence in light of the charge to the jury, passing upon the weight of the evidence and assessing the credibility of the witnesses. Owen Kelly v. C.H. Sprague & Sons Co., R.I., 455 A.2d 1302, 1304 (1983); Connors v. Gasbarro, R.I., 448 A.2d 756, 759 (1982).

If the trial justice then determines that the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom are so nearly balanced that reasonable persons could arrive at different results in deciding the case, the new-trial motion must be denied. If, however, the trial justice concludes that the jury's verdict is against the fair preponderance of the evidence, he or she must grant the motion for a new trial. Kelly v. C.H. Sprague & Sons Co. and Connors v. Gasbarro, both supra.

Although the trial justice need not exhaustively evaluate the evidence, he or she should at least refer with some specificity to the facts that prompted his or her action in order to enable this court to determine whether the decision was warranted, or was based upon a misconception or an oversight of material evidence, or was otherwise clearly wrong. Pimental v. Postoian, 121 R.I. 6, 11, 393 A.2d 1097, 1100 (1978); Morinville v. Morinville, 116 R.I. 507, 511-12, 359 A.2d 48, 51 (1976). If the trial justice properly performs these new-trial duties and does not overlook or misconceive material evidence, the ruling on a motion for a new trial will not be disturbed on appeal. Kelly v. C.H. Sprague & Sons Co., R.I., 455 A.2d at 1304; Mouchon v. Erikson's, Inc., R.I., 448 A.2d 776, 778 (1982).

This standard of review applies equally when the question on the motion for a new trial involves the award of excessive damages. Mouchon v. Erikson's, Inc., R.I., 448 A.2d at 779; Wood v. Paolino, 112 R.I. 753, 755, 315 A.2d 744, 745 (1974). It is well settled that although the fixing of damages is generally a jury function, it may be interfered with by a trial justice on a motion for a new trial if, in the exercise of his or her independent judgment in passing upon the evidence of damages, the trial justice finds that the award is grossly in excess of an amount adequate to compensate the plaintiff for the wrong done. Mouchon v. Erikson's, Inc., R.I., 448 A.2d 776, 779 (1982); Yammerino v. Cranston Tennis Club, Inc., R.I., 416 A.2d 698, 700 (1980); Wood v. Paolino, 112 R.I. 753, 755, 315 A.2d 744, 745 (1974).

This rule generally has been applied to compensatory damages including pain and suffering. See Wood v. Paolino, 112 R.I. 753, 315 A.2d 744 (1974). When damages are awarded for pain and suffering, the trial justice may disregard the jury's verdict on a motion for a new trial if the award "shocks the conscience or clearly demonstrates that the jury was influenced by passion or prejudice, or that it proceeded upon a clearly erroneous basis in arriving at its award." Id. at 757, 315 A.2d at 746. This is true even though damages for pain and suffering cannot be assessed with mathematical precision. Pimental v. Postoian, 121 R.I. at 12, 393 A.2d at 1101.

The case at bar involves an award of punitive damages. 1 Punitive damages are imprecise and elusive of review. However, we think the rule that we have applied in the review of awards for pain and suffering may be applied equally when a trial justice interferes with a jury award of punitive damages.

There is no question that punitive damages are allowable in a case involving alienation of affections and criminal conversation. Bailey v. Huling, 119 R.I. 250, 258, 377 A.2d 220, 224 (1977); see Hargraves v. Ballou, 47 R.I. 186, 131 A. 643 (1926). The trial justice so instructed the jury. It is also well settled that once it has been determined that a case is appropriate for an award of punitive damages, the determination with regard to whether or not plaintiff is entitled to such an award, and in what amount, is a matter left to the discretion of the jury. Pimental v. Postoian, 121 R.I. 6, 14, 393 A.2d 1097, 1102 (1978); Sherman v. McDermott, 114 R.I. 107, 108-09, 329 A.2d 195, 196 (1974).

However, such discretion is not unlimited. This court held long ago that a jury award of punitive damages may be set aside by the trial court if the amount "clearly appears to be excessive, or to represent the passion and prejudice of the jury rather than their unbiased judgment." McFetters v. Cardone, 47 R.I. 144,...

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