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Kozel v. Kozel

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Spartanburg Division

November 18, 2019

David F. Kozel, Plaintiff,
v.
Deborah L. Kozel, Dallas C. Kozel, India L. Kozel, Defendants.

          ORDER

          DONALD C. COGGINS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Dallas C. Kozel (“Dallas”) and India L. Kozel's (“India”) motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, for set-off; Defendant Deborah L. Kozel's (“Deborah”) motion to set-off judgment; and Plaintiff's bill of costs. ECF Nos. 426, 428, 429. All motions have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 427, 430, 431, 432, 433, 434.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This action was originally filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania. ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleged claims of defamation per se as to Deborah, Dallas, and India and malicious prosecution as to Dallas and India, among other claims that concluded prior to trial. Dallas and India raised counterclaims. This matter was tried before a jury from June 10, 2019, through June 21, 2019. After due deliberations, the jury found for Plaintiff on his claim for malicious prosecution as to Dallas and India and on his claim for defamation as to Deborah. On June 21, 2019, the Clerk entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff pursuant to the jury verdict.

         DISCUSSION

         Dallas and India's Motion for a New Trial

         Dallas and India contend they are entitled to a new trial because the jury returned inconsistent verdicts, the amount of damages awarded by the jury illustrates its failure to follow the law as instructed by the Court, and because the improper conduct of Plaintiff's counsel unfairly prejudiced them. ECF No. 429. The Court disagrees.

         Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for a motion to alter or amend a judgment. Rule 59(e) “permits a district court to correct its own errors, ‘sparing the parties and the appellate courts the burden of unnecessary appellate proceedings.'” Pac. Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat'l Fire Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Russell v. Delco Remy Div. of Gen. Motors Corp., 51 F.3d 746, 749 (7th Cir. 1995)). “Rule 59(e) motions will be granted in three circumstances: (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.” Ingle ex rel. Estate of Ingle v. Yelton, 439 F.3d 191, 197 (4th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “In general reconsideration of a judgment after its entry is an extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly.” Pac. Ins. Co., 148 F.3d at 403 (citation omitted).

         Dallas and India argue that the jury finding them liable for malicious prosecution[1] and not liable for defamation per se[2] illustrates that the jury failed to follow the law as instructed by the Court. However, the claims of malicious prosecution and defamation per se are separate causes of action with distinct elements. Even if the same allegedly false claims by Dallas and India created the factual predicate for both causes of action, there are absolute[3] and qualified privileges applicable to the defamation cause of action which could explain the jury's verdict. The jury's findings were within their discretion, and Dallas and India have not demonstrated that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence.

         Dallas and India next argue that the amount of damages awarded by the jury illustrates that they did not follow the law. The jury awarded Plaintiff $1.00 from both Dallas and India for malicious prosecution. They contend this was a result of Plaintiff's counsel's closing argument wherein she requested that the jury forego punitive damages against these Defendants and take into account their ability to pay. Dallas and India contend that these statements invited the jury to ignore the instructions by the Court. The Court disagrees.

         It is uniquely within the province of the jury to determine the amount of damages to be awarded as long as the award is supported by the evidence and authorized by law. Here, Plaintiff-Dallas and India's father-requested that the jury decline to award punitive damages against his daughters and to take into consideration their financial situations with respect to any award of actual damages. The jury responded by awarding nominal actual damages of $1 against each daughter. Given the familial relationship, Plaintiff's unique ability to value the non-economic harm suffered by him, and Plaintiff's theory of the case that his daughters were in many ways victims of their mother's efforts to extract money from him, the Court finds that a reasonable jury could reach this result based upon the evidence of record.

         Finally, Dallas and India argue that the improper conduct of Plaintiff's counsel unfairly prejudiced them. They contend that Plaintiff knowingly and intentionally falsely testified that Judge McDaniel[4] had called the criminal prosecution against him a “cruel hoax” when this Court had previously ruled that Judge McDaniel's statements would be precluded at trial. Dallas and India assert that this was an intentional decision to introduce the “cruel hoax” statement. They argue that this conclusion is supported by other misrepresentations made by Plaintiff and his counsel at trial. Dallas and India contend that, as a result of Plaintiff's counsel's conduct, it would constitute a miscarriage of justice to allow the verdict to stand. The Court disagrees.

         While it is true that there were occasions during this two-week trial where the Court had to intervene to issue a ruling against Plaintiff's counsel or give a curative instruction, there was nothing that rises to a level sufficient to require the setting aside of the jury's verdict. In short, this was an extremely contested, highly emotional trial where counsel for both sides very zealously represented their clients. The jury heard the evidence and essentially had to decide whom to believe. There was ...


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