The foreman of the State Court jury that awarded the largest civil judgment in Muscogee County history tells News 3 that years of ownership neglect led to the record verdict.
Steve Morse sat down with News 3 for an exclusive interview about the $125 million verdict against Ralston Towers and its New Jersey-based owners.
The decision came down Monday afternoon on the sixth day of the wrongful death suit brought by Charles Hart’s daughter. Hart died on July 6, 2017 in Ralston room 322. He had COPD and when his body was discovered, the room was more than 98 degrees.
Ralston attorney James Budd brought out testimony from an expert witness that Hart was cold natured because of his many illnesses and liked his room hot.
Evidence from plaintiff’s attorney Charles Gower showed an air conditioning unit that was not properly functioning. Malfunctioning heat and air units, as well as poor maintenance throughout the 269-unit downtown Columbus low-income apartment building, was common.
The years of neglect to the building by owners PF Holdings Inc., was a factor in the huge award, Morse said.
“… By the evidence that was presented to us, it showed without a doubt to all the jurors that the Ralston has been neglected for a number of years,” Morse said.
Gower painted a picture of absentee owners diverting millions away from the property the whole time they owned it. Morse says, that and the fact that PF Holdings owns similar properties all across the country is why the verdict was so large
“It was,” Morse said. “I think that with everything that went on, that we learned through the evidence of the trial, that the money just was not put back into the facility.”
The corporations involved were contracted to maintain a safe and comfortable environment for the residents of the Ralston. By not properly maintaining the facility and not reacting quickly when issues arose, the jury felt the evidence displayed violations of the minimum standards and should be held responsible for the death of the resident.Official statement by the Jury, delivered by Stephen Morse, Jury Foreman
With the understanding that these corporations run hundreds of other facilities like the Ralston, awarding punitive damages was necessary, so they understand the severity of their negligence. We the jury felt that corners were massively cut by Ralston, resulting in loss of life.
On Tuesday, Gower was back in the office working on an almost certain appeal.
Defense attorneys have not commented on a possible appeal, but there was an appellate attorney working on the defense team. He monitored most of the trial.
Gower made a strong allegation during the six-day trial. He accused PF Holdings, Schoolhouse Road Estates and brothers Chiam and Aron Puretz of laundering money.
That was the centerpiece of the case. That the money taken away from the Ralston – Gower claims it’s more than 5 million – could have been used on maintenace.
A former CPA with more than a half century practicing law, the 78-year-old Gower says he just followed the money.
“Well, you can take the tax returns and the financial statements, all of which is public records,” Gower said. “Everything we got was public records. And, it’s pretty easy to figure it out. They were giving away millions when it was needed for the Ralston.”
Gower also made the condition of the property an issue in the trial. And it seemed to resonate with the jury.
Because of the condition of the building and the fact that the owners cannibalize one unit to keep another rentable, Gower does think the Ralston can survive.
“When you keep doing that, you have less apartments to rent. So, I think that the rent income is going to decrease substantially. Because they won’t even spend a nickel to earn a dime. And sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with them and I think it’s just about at that point.”
Gower says the defense made three offers to settle the case. The first one was for $50,000. They offered $1.5 just before the trial. The final settlement offer was $5 million as the jury was deliberating.