Helmsley's lawyer asks judge to reduce $11.17 million verdict

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com February 28 2003 12:00 AM ET

A lawyer for Leona Helmsley predicted Wednesday that the man who won a gay-bias case against the hotel queen "won't see a penny" of the $11.17 million the Manhattan jury awarded him. The lawyer, Steven G. Eckhaus, asked a judge Wednesday to reduce the amount the jury awarded to Charles Bell, the former manager of the Park Lane Hotel, after finding that the real estate billionaire had fired him because he is gay. Eckhaus called the award "way, way excessive" by the standards of cases that had been decided in New York State. The jury gave Bell $1.17 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.

Eckhaus said Bell should be awarded only between $20,000 and $54,000 because after he was fired he rejected an offer to return and manage a Helmsley hotel for $125,000 a year. He said Bell's right to monetary damages ended the moment he rejected the offer. Eckhaus noted that state supreme court justice Walter Tolub, the presiding judge, said punitive damages should be no more than 10 times the compensatory damages. Eckhaus said that would put Bell's punitive award at between $200,000
and $540,000.

Bell's lawyer, Geri S. Krauss, called the $11.17 million verdict appropriate. And she said the $10 million punitive award, in light of the judge's instruction that Helmsley was worth $3.2 billion to $4 billion, was the equivalent of a $50 traffic ticket for a person who earns $25,000 a year. In addition, Krauss asked the judge to award Bell $1.7 million in legal fees. Eckhaus said Krauss's fees should be limited to $350,000 to $400,000, despite her two years on Bell's case and his own bill of $250,000 for a few months of work.

Eckhaus said he believes an appeals court will order a new trial because the judge erred when he failed to allow testimony about Patrick Ward. Ward, 47, is the man Helmsley thought was her boyfriend until she learned he is gay; he was Helmsley's chief operating officer and had hired Bell. Eckhaus said he wanted to show that Bell was fired because of his association with Ward, not because he is gay. "You can quote me," Eckhaus predicted outside court, "when the smoke clears from this case, I believe Bell won't see a penny from this verdict. He'll get nothing."