WHEELING – A federal judge denied one of the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, remittitur and/or amendment of the judgment in a lawsuit against multiple defendants accused of causing the death of a Wheeling Jesuit University student.
“Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 50(b), 59(a)(1)(A) and (e), and 60(b)(5) and (6), defendant Tyler Johnson moves for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, remittitur, and/or amendment of the judgment,” District Judge Frederick Stamp wrote in the Oct. 20 memorandum opinion and order.
Stamp said the defendant’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, motion for a new trial, motion for remittitur, and/or amendment of the judgment was denied.
When asking for a new trial, Johnson contended that his mere words made during the fight did not, as a matter of law or fact, render him liable to the plaintiffs under the facts of this case; that the jury instructions were erroneous and prejudicial; that the jury’s apportionment of 75 percent of the liability to Johnson was contrary to the weight of the evidence and a miscarriage of justice; that the jury’s award of punitive damages was unsupported by sufficient evidence, contrary to the weight of the evidence, and manifestly excessive; and that Jarrett Chandler was improperly permitted to argue self-defense to reduce his apportioned share of liability.
Stamp wrote that the court finds no error in permitting the jury to hear evidence regarding Johnson’s “mere words” as they exposed Kevin Figaniak to a “foreseeably high risk of being assaulted and battered.”
Johnson contended that his “mere words” constituted free speech and should not render him liable to the plaintiffs as negligence.
“However, the jury heard significant testimony that…Johnson engaged in affirmative conduct which caused the verbal confrontation between the parties to continue and escalate into a fight,” Stamp wrote. “Considerable evidence was presented at trial to show that defendant Johnson’s words and conduct initiated and instigated the altercation.”
Johnson’s actions go beyond “mere words” and Johnson fails to address in his argument his actions which occurred after he made the insulting comments to the other defendants.
The jury heard testimony that Johnson engaged in numerous other actions such as moving Kevin Figaniak and dropping him on his head on the sidewalk, which could be viewed by the jury as a proximate cause of Kevin Figaniak’s death, and thus, be considered by the jury as the basis for his liability.
“This Court finds that the credibility and weight given to testimony is exclusively the province of the jury,” Stamp said. “The jury was free to conclude that defendant Johnson started and provoked this altercation and his actions constituted more than uttering mere words. It was proper for the jury to consider the foreseeability of the altercation after provocation by defendant Johnson and take into consideration the numerous other actions of defendant Johnson that went beyond ‘mere words.’”
Accordingly, the court found that Johnson’s contention that his mere words did not, as a matter of law or fact, render him liable to plaintiffs under the facts of this case fails and defendant’s motion for judgment or a new trial shall be denied.
Johnson also argued that the court erred in permitting the jury to find him liable on the theory that his words caused the violence that led to Kevin Figaniak’s death.
Stamp said the court found that Johnson’s assignment of error as to the jury’s instructions fails, that the defendant was not prejudiced.
The court also found that Johnson’s assignment of error as to the jury’s apportionment of liability fails, as well as his assignment of error to the jury’s award of punitive damages.
Stamp also said the court ruled that counsel for Chandler was permitted to advance a self-defense argument in order to advocate for his apportionment of liability, not a determination of liability.
“This court finds no error in permitting…Chandler to advance self-defense arguments solely to be considered by the jury in determining the reasonableness of…Chandler’s actions in the circumstances as compared to all other parties in apportioning liability,” Stamp wrote.
Accordingly, this Court finds that defendant Tyler Johnson’s assignment of error as to defendant Chandler’s self-defense argument fails, and defendant’s motion for a new trial shall be denied.
Stamp also denied as moot Johnson’s motion for alteration and amendment of the judgment to reflect credits for plaintiffs’ settlements with two defendants.
On July 31, a jury deliberated for less than four hours and found that Johnson was 75 percent at fault for the death of Kevin Figaniak. The trial lasted five days.
The jury found that Craig Tyler Peacock, who was previously acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges, was found 13 percent at fault. It also found that Chandler, who previously pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with Kevin Figaniak’s death, was six percent responsible. The jury also found that Kevin Figaniak was six percent responsible for his own death.
The jury awarded Thomas G. Figaniak and Valerie A. Figaniak $3 million. Additionally, the jury awarded $1.25 million in punitive damages against Johnson.
On Aug. 31, 2013, Kevin Figaniak was unconscious following a street altercation with two pipeline workers in Wheeling. Johnson, who was on Kevin Figaniak’s lacrosse teammate, refused to get him medical attention and, instead, dragged him to his apartment. At some point along the way, Johnson dropped Kevin Figaniak on his head on the cement street.
The plaintiffs alleged in their 2015 lawsuit that their son would have survived the beating if Johnson had immediately called 911.
Kevin Figaniak died on Sept. 1, 2013, in a Pittsburgh hospital.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia case number: 5:15-cv-00111