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Egan v. Butler

Supreme Court of Virginia

June 4, 2015

JOSEPH EGAN, SR.
v.
DAVID BUTLER; ABILENE MOTOR EXPRESS CO.
v.
DAVID BUTLER

Page 766

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 768

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND. Margaret P. Spencer, Judge.

Christopher M. Winslow (Winslow & McCurry, on brief), for appellant.

William G. Shields (Shields Law Firm, on brief), for appellee.

William H. Shewmake (Gabriel A. Walker; LeClairRyan, on briefs), for appellant.

William G. Shields (Shields Law Firm, on brief), for appellee.

OPINION

Page 769

LEROY F. MILLETTE, JR., JUSTICE.

In these appeals we consider whether evidence of work history and quality of past job performance is probative of future lost income damages, and whether the evidence introduced at trial was sufficient to subject a corporate employer to punitive damages liability.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

David Lamont Butler worked as a diesel mechanic at Abilene Motor Express Company, where Joseph F. Egan, Sr., was Butler's supervisor. After working at Abilene for three months, Butler was fired by Egan for unsatisfactory job performance. Although the circumstances of that termination are subject to differing accounts by the parties, the situation was undisputedly heated.

The same day that Butler was fired, Egan swore out a misdemeanor assault and battery complaint against Butler for events that allegedly occurred immediately after Butler's termination. The following day, Egan told other Abilene employees that Butler had pushed Egan and that Butler had cut or stabbed Egan. The misdemeanor assault and battery charge was dismissed with prejudice several months later.

Based on these circumstances, Butler filed a complaint against Egan and Abilene alleging one count of malicious prosecution and one count of defamation. Under both claims Butler sought compensatory damages, including future lost income, and punitive damages.

Butler's claims went to a jury trial. After hearing witness testimony and considering the evidence, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Butler. On the malicious prosecution claim, the jury awarded Butler $250,000 in compensatory damages, and $50,000 in punitive damages against Egan and $200,000 in punitive damages against Abilene. In compliance with Code § 8.01-38.1, the circuit court reduced the punitive damages award against Egan to $38,850 and the punitive damages award against Abilene to $155,600. On the defamation claim, the jury awarded Butler $200,000 in compensatory damages, and $50,000 in punitive damages against Egan and $150,000 in punitive damages against Abilene. In compliance with Code § 8.01-38.1, the circuit court reduced the punitive damages award against Egan to $38,850 and the punitive damages award against Abilene to $116,700. Apart from reducing the punitive damages awards, the circuit court entered final judgment on the jury's verdicts against Egan and Abilene.

Egan and Abilene separately filed timely appeals with this Court.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Future Lost Income

Egan's assignment of error 1 and Abilene's assignment of error 1 are identical, and read:

The trial court erred when it (1) excluded evidence of Butler's past employment history

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and (2) when it excluded evidence of the quality of Butler's job performance

1. Standard of Review

" We review a trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence using an abuse of discretion standard and, on appeal, will not disturb a trial court's decision to [exclude] evidence absent a finding of abuse of that discretion." Harman v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 288 Va. 88, 92, 758 S.E.2d 515, 520 (2014) (internal quotation marks, citation, and alterations omitted). " In a civil case, the erroneous exclusion of evidence is reversible error when the record fails to show plainly that the excluded ...


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