Judge slashes award in Helmsley verdict

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 06 2003 1:00 AM ET

The $11.17 million that a jury awarded to the ex-manager of Manhattan's pricey Park Lane Hotel after finding that hotel owner Leona Helmsley fired him because he is gay was reduced Tuesday to $554,000. A judge said Helmsley is not a multibillion-dollar pinata "to poke a stick at in the hopes of hitting the jackpot." New York supreme court justice Walter Tolub reduced the award after finding that Charles Bell, the former manager, was not entitled to $1.1 million in economic damages and that the $10 million in punitive damages he was awarded was excessive. The judge speculated that the awards resulted from Helmsley's "belligerence" on the witness stand and her "accompanying sneer," which annoyed the jury and succeeded "in keeping the specter of the 'Queen of Mean' alive in the courtroom."

On February 4 a Manhattan jury of four women and two men found that Helmsley, 82, had subjected Bell, 48, to an abusive and hostile work environment at the 600-room Park Lane, where she lives, and then fired him after learning that he is gay. The judge said the award of $321,000 for lost past earnings and benefits and $800,000 for lost future earnings and benefits was unsupported by evidence and
contrary to the jury's own findings. He also noted that Bell had run the hotel for only about four months. The judge said Bell's refusal of Helmsley's offer of a hotel management job a month before any settlement talks began--a job that would have paid $15,000 more than the $110,000 a year he made before she fired him--means he is not entitled to economic damages. And the jury's finding that Helmsley would have fired Bell anyway after learning he had lied about his work history and that he used illegal recreational drugs was inconsistent with the award of future lost wages and benefits, the judge wrote.

The judge said punitive damages are meant to punish and discourage others from similar behavior. There are no precise guidelines for amounts that should be awarded, he said, but they should be limited by reasonableness and constitutional considerations. "Punitive damages are not a game of Lotto," he wrote, "and more particularly to the matter at hand, Mrs. Helmsley is not a $4 billion pinata for every John, Patrick, or Charlie to poke a stick at in the hopes of hitting the jackpot."

Bell's lawyers did not respond immediately to requests for comment. A lawyer for Helmsley said the judge "did the right thing."

In his 16-page decision, the judge said the punitive damages award "was excessive and actuated by passion." He speculated that "Helmsley's brief [21 minutes by some estimates], belligerent, confused, agitated, and insensitive presentation only resulted in inflaming the jury." He commented on her response to a question about Bell's giving out free rooms at the Park Lane Hotel by noting that she said "in a gratuitous, acerbic gibe, 'It made him a big shot in the gay group, I guess.' That and Mrs. Helmsley's accompanying sneer made a very distinct impression on the jury. Moreover, on cross-examination, her belligerence and evasiveness did little to further her cause." He said the statements, "coupled with testimony relating to Mrs. Helmsley's high living, prior tax evasion, and insensitivity to those around her, succeeded in keeping the specter of the 'Queen of Mean' alive in the courtroom." The judge said the resulting $10 million could not under any circumstances be sustained as reasonable.

Besides dropping the punitive award to $500,000, the judge let stand awards of $30,000 for past pain, suffering, and emotional distress and $24,000 for future pain, suffering, and emotional distress over the next two years.

Helmsley's lawyer, Steven G. Eckhaus, said, "We are grateful that Judge Tolub did the right thing in throwing out the award for economic damages. We are confident that on appeal the entire judgment will be thrown out." He said he stands by his prediction "that Mr. Bell will never see a penny from
this verdict." He added that he has not spoken to Helmsley but said "she has been steadfast in her belief that she did nothing wrong."

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