Woman seeks new trial after jury holds her liable for $400,000

Published: Friday, May. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014 - 8:41 am

A woman – whose boyfriend murdered his son – wants a new trial for herself after the mother of the slaying victim sued her and won $400,000 in damages.

Janet Sartain filed the new trial motion to set aside the award returned by a Sacramento Superior Court jury in the civil case filed against her by Mary Lou Villa, whose son Alexander Villa was stabbed to death by his father, Gerardo Valencia "Jerry" Villa.

Mary Lou Villa filed the suit five months after Jerry Villa, now 54, was convicted of first-degree murder in the April 4, 2009, killing of his 26-year-old son. She named Janet Sartain and her elderly mother, Frieda, as well as her former husband, as defendants in the wrongful death and premises liability action.

Jurors on March 28 awarded Mary Lou Villa $1 million for the loss of her son's love and companionship – even though she had a restraining order pending against him at the time of his death because he allegedly had threatened to kill her.

The panel apportioned 40 percent of the blame for Alexander Villa's death to Janet Sartain, meaning she has to pay $400,000. The jury found Jerry Villa, now serving a 25-to-life prison term, liable for $2 million in punitive damages. Janet Sartain was not named in the punitive damages award.

Sartain's attorney, Bradley S. Thomas, wants the new trial on grounds of jury misconduct. Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, argued in court papers the jury upped the general damages award to punish his client because she was not criminally prosecuted.

"Since the criminal system did not punish her, this jury decided to do so," Thomas wrote. He said that in the words of one juror, "they did not want Ms. Sartain to 'get away with it.' "

A hearing on the new trial motion is scheduled for May 31 in front of Judge David De Alba. Mary Lou Villa's attorney, Robert M. Merritt, said he will vigorously contest it.

"The jury evaluated the case based on evidence that was presented to them, and the jury came back with a fair award for the plaintiff," Merritt said in an interview.

According to documents from the criminal and civil trials, the killing took place at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night at the Sartain house in the 3900 block of Pasadena Avenue. Janet Sartain lived there with Jerry, her mother who owned the house, and Alexander Villa, who rented a room for $200 a month.

The night before the killing, Alexander Villa got angry at his two teacup Chihuahuas and began to roughly handle them. The next day, he holed up in his room with the dogs, and Jerry – who had been drinking – knocked on Alex's door that evening to check on the Chihuahas.

Concerned that Alex might react violently, the court papers said, Jerry armed himself with a knife. When Alex answered the door, an altercation ensued and Jerry stabbed his son. Alex left the house, collapsed and died. Nobody in the house called 911.

In his court papers, Merritt, the plaintiff's lawyer, said Jerry "had a history of heavy drinking and abuse toward Alexander." He said the night before the stabbing, Janet Sartain was yelling and screaming at Jerry to do something about Alex after the son's alleged abuse of the dogs.

"I told him, 'Jerry, we can't have this here,' " Janet Sartain, 50, testified at her boyfriend's 2010 murder trial. "'He needs to move. I have to take care of my mom, and he is going to have to leave.' "

Merritt said Jerry "and Janet" both got the knife before they went to Alex's room and that she instigated the confrontation. Beyond that, Merritt wrote, as a landlord Janet Sartain "had a duty to come to (Alex Villa's ) aid or to protect him from criminal attack."

The plaintiff's lawyer convinced the jury to make the big award, but Janet Sartain's lawyer has since asked the judge to throw it out and grant a new trial on grounds of jury misconduct.

Defense attorney Thomas obtained declarations from three jurors saying some members of the panel argued to award the $1 million in general damages in order to punish Sartain – even though she was not liable for a punitive finding.

One juror said in his declaration that several members of the panel commented that "since Ms. Sartain had not been criminally prosecuted, the verdict we reached needed to be sufficiently high to 'send her a message' that she should have been prosecuted."

Two jurors said in declaration that another member claimed to have conducted an Internet search to obtain information on the case to find out if Janet Sartain – who was never charged – had been criminally convicted.

Thomas' investigator, Peter R. Brown, declared that he talked to five other jurors who admitted they voted for the $1 million noneconomic damages award to punish Sartain.

"It is apparent that rather than following the court's instructions and awarding damages only on the evidence presented about the loss of care, comfort, society and companionship, this jury effectively awarded punitive damages to plaintiff," for malice, oppression or fraud, Thomas wrote.

The defense lawyer also questioned the nonecononic damage award to Mary Lou Villa, citing the 2007 restraining order she obtained on Alex Villa because he "came to her house with a knife and threatened to kill her."

In an interview, Merritt said the mother and son reconciled two months before his death, although she never went to court to have the restraining order dissolved.

"He came over, they met and talked and said how much they loved each other," Merritt said.

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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