WILLIAMSPORT — A federal judge has upheld a $3.2 million award to a local woman who successfully argued that her estranged husband and four others conspired in 2004 to remove a large safe and its contents worth millions from her marital home in Northumberland County.
U.S. Middle District Magistrate Judge William Arbuckle denied last week’s motions to either amend the judgement or conduct a new trial, which concluded Sept. 25 with a jury awarding Donna Deitrick $3.2 million, including $1.6 million in punitive damages.
The appeals were filed by Robert Yoncuski and his wife, Vanessa Yoncuski, Marianne Adams, Thomas Yoncuski and Jeff Adams.
The defendants claimed the court erred by allowing Deitrick to testify as to the value of the contents of the safe.
The jury set the value of the items in the safe when it was taken, but not recovered, as $825,000 and the loss of value of damaged items recovered as $350,000.
The judge stated in his order that the jury was instructed more than once that the burden of proving damages “by a preponderance of the evidence” was on the plaintiff and that the award must be based on “evidence and not speculation or guesswork.”
“There is simply no basis to assume that the jury was confused or misled by these clear instructions on the burden of proof,” the judge stated in his order.
Another issue was whether the court mislead the jury and caused them to misapply the burden of proof by permitting the jury to consider awarding Deitrick noneconomic damages where there was no evidence of physical injury.
The jury awarded $400,000 after determining Deitrick experienced embarrassment, humiliation and/or loss of the ability to enjoy life. The damages were proportioned as follows: Robert Yoncuski, $200,000; Vanessa Long, $100,000; Jeff Adams, $40,000; Marianna Adams, $40,000; and Thomas Yoncuski, $20,000.
Arbuckle ruled that a claim for damages is supported when the property has “unmistakable” emotional and sentimental value.
“To hold otherwise would mean, for example, that a thief could steal a Purple Heart and Bronze Star awarded to a veteran, not return them, and then be liable only for the replacement value of similar medals on eBay,” Arbuckle stated.
Vanessa Yoncuski also argued that the only basis to find her liable is the “admission” of an audiotape of a security call from the burglary, during which Robert Yoncuski is heard stating, “Let me ask my girlfriend” in response to a question by a security company operator.
Arbuckle explained that the taped call was never “admitted” into evidence and it did not go out with the jury. Instead, it was used to cross examine Robert Yoncuski to refresh his recollection when he testified that he stated, “Let me ask my wife.”
When confronted with the tape, Robert Yoncuski admitted that he said “girlfriend” and not “wife.”
Robert and Vanessa Yoncuski also argued that the jury should not have been instructed to consider Deitrick’s wage loss and emotional damages for alleged injuries incurred during a related fight at the Shamokin Police Department.
The jury found that Robert was responsible for 30% and Vanessa 70% for past medical bills of $12,030 and future medical bills of $13,500, which were submitted by a doctor.
Arbuckle said he searched the jury instructions and verdict slip and the words “wage” or “wage loss” did not appear.
Regarding the emotional distress claim, the judge ruled that although the defendants are correct that treatment did not begin for several years after the incident, the doctor testified that he attributed “some” of Deitrick’s distress to the incident at the police station.
“It was for the jury to decide how much to award for that treatment, if it was related to the actions of Robert and Vanessa at the police station — and they did,” Arbuckle said in his order. “The requests for an amended verdict or new trial based on the award for damages for emotional distress and medical bills relating to the incident at the police station will be denied.”