Judge Awards Victim of Crash $12 Million

Los Angeles Daily Journal

Plaintiffs’ Attorney Will Seek Judgment From Auto Shop’s Insurance Company

In one of the largest judgments of its kind, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Monday ordered a Whittier auto shop to pay $12.4 million in interest and litigation costs to a 28-year-old man paralyzed in a traffic accident 10 years ago.

The judgment came under Section 998 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which states that the losing party in a civil lawsuit can be forced to pay opponents’ litigation costs if it rejected a pretrial settlement offer, said plaintiffs’ lawyer Garo Mardirossian of Los Angeles’ Mardirossian & Associates.

Mardirossian said Monday he plans to file against the auto shop’s Insurance company, Liberty Mutual, to collect on the judgment. The plaintiffs have agreed to not collect from the shop’s owner, Dikran “Diko” Sulahian, he added.

“[Sulahian] told them to settle this case, ” Mardirossian said. “His insurance company [refused.]”

Monday, Judge Daniel S. Pratt also ordered Liberty Mutual to pay Sulahian $2.5 million for the costs he incurred in the decade-long litigation.

An Attorney for Liberty Mutual, Robert Morgenstern, was out of the office for the day and could not be reached for comment. “I haven’t heard of any interest award larger than that… never heard of it in any case in California or anywhere else,” Mardirossian said.

Bruce Brusavich, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, said he couldn’t recall a similar award of the magnitude of Mardirossian’s. Brusavich described the award as “very substantial.”

Mardirossian represents 28-year-old Oganes Saakyan, who in June 1992 rolled off the freeway shortly after picking up his sister’s Honda from Modern Auto in Whittier. Saakyan v. Honda Motor Co. Ltd, VC013709 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed June 25, 1993).

Saakyan, who was 17 and on his way to Magic Mountain for his Hollywood High School graduation party, was paralyzed from the chest down. His friend, Garnik Paronyan, who was a passenger in
the car, suffered spinal cord injuries but since has recovered. Saakyan and Paronyan accused Modern Auto of installing rims and wheels that were too big for the car. Honda was dismissed from the case before trial.

In February 1994, Mardirossian offered to settle the two boys’ cases for $935,000. The auto shop’s owner, Sulahian, encouraged his insurance company, Liberty Mutual, to pay. The insurance company refused, Mardirossian said.

“They didn’t attempt to protect their insured from this excess policy judgment, he said. Nine months later, the case went to trial, and the jury returned a negative verdict rejecting Saakayan’s and Paronyan’s claims.

Mardirossian, however, went to the appeals court and won a retrial after learning that one of the jurors had visited the accident site as part of his own personal investigation, the lawyer said. Jurors are supposed to limit themselves to evidence presented in court.

In August 2000, a second jury unanimously found for the Plaintiffs, awarding $12 million to Saakyan and $1 million to Paronyan.

Pratt, however, rejected Mardirossian’s Section 998 request for interest and costs, citing the fact that the first jury had turned back his claims.

Mardirossian went back to the appeals court and once again won a reversal.

The appeals court said that “a defense verdict that is ill-gotten is void, like it never happened, so the 998 continued and was in effect,” Mardirossian said.

Mardirossian’s award includes $8.57 million in prejudgment interest. In a long-running case like Mardirossian’s, which had been up to appeals court twice, the interest can add up, lawyers said.

“It’s mandatory at 10 percent, going back to the date when the offer was made,” Brusavich, an attorney with Torrace’s Agnew & Brusavich, said.

“Section 998 is a very successful tool…especially these days,” he said, referring to low and fluctuating interest rates. “Especially if it’s a substantial verdict, and it goes on appeal, the clock is running at 10 percent.”

Mardirossian says he will continue to fight until his client gets his money. “We waited 11 years,” he said. “We may have to wait another 20 years, and we’re perfectly willing to do that to get justice served.”

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