Garo Mardirossian Wins Biggest Police Abuse Verdict Ever

Six years ago, attorney Garo Mardirossian was planning to celebrate Melinda Dole Paapao’s wedding with her family. Instead, he ended up representing members of the Dole family in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, stemming from charges that deputies brutalized party-goers at a wedding shower – about two weeks before Mardirossian planned to attend the wedding.

Earlier this week, after a seven-month trial, jurors returned the largest verdict in Los Angeles stemming from police abuse, awarding Mardirossian’s clients more than $15.9 million for the violation of their civil rights, Dole v. County of Los Angeles, C751398.

Three years ago, Mardirossian, 39, won acquittals for members of the Dole family and their friends who had faced criminal charges as a result of the incident.

The deputies said they were responding to complaints there was fighting going on in the street in front of the Dole’s house. When deputies responded in force, they claimed they were pelted with rocks and bottles.

But the incident was caught on a neighbor’s videotape.

During the civil trial, Mardirossian showed the video to the deputies. “I told them to tell me [to stop the video] when they saw the rocks and bottles being thrown,” the attorney said. “They never stopped me.”

Consumed by the Case

In addition, a stream of neighbors testified that the Doles and their guests were subjected to an unprovoked attack. Jurors said afterward they thought that deputies had lied about the incident and planted evidence to cover up their misconduct.

The case was an especially tough one for Mardirossian, a veteran personal injury lawyer who has handled other police abuse cases and has taught seminars about the subject to other lawyers. “I was consumed by this case,” he said.

The victims were his friends.

“I saw the tranquil lives before and what their lives became” after the attack, Mardirossian said.

The case was also difficult because during the seven-month trial his elderly father, Kevork Mardirossian, was near death. “Thank God, he got his liver transplant, and he’s doing very well,” Mardirossian said in an interview earlier this week in his offices on Wilshire Boulevard near Crescent Heights.

Mardirossian met the Doles after he represented one of the family members, David Dole, in litigation after hurting his Back in an automobile accident.

He described them as an easy-going Samoan family that enjoyed spending time together. When he got the call for help. Mardirossian said he was incredulous. It just didn’t sound like the family he knew.

“My first reaction was, “It must have been the guests.’ To see them [the Doles] bloodied up, it was terrible.” A Polaroid photo of Dole at Mardirossian’s Christmas party several years ago was introduced at trial.

“The defense attorney tried to suggest that this whole thing was set up by an attorney. Mardirossian recalled. “But we showed the photo to the jury and were able to show that I wasn’t just an attorney, I was a friend.”

The defense attorney in the case, Paul Paquette, of Serritella & Paquette, was in trial and unavailable for comment Thursday. Realizing that he was wading into a massive case with 36 plaintiffs – some of whom faced criminal charges – Mardirossian enlisted the help of two veteran civil rights attorneys, Hugh Manes of Manes & Watson, and Tom Beck. He praised their contribution to the case.

Lawyers familiar with Mardirossian’s work praised him for his strong commitment to his clients, his imaginative use of demonstrative evidence and his idealism.

“He is capable of making lawyers, judges and jurors take a new look at the way the world works,” said attorney Robert Berke, who has worked on cases with Mardirossian. “He has a spirit and a vitality that’s sensed by the judge and the jury.”

Before the O.J. Simpson trial made high-tech wizardry in the courtroom seem commonplace, Berke said that Mardirossian “had every gadget ever seen, using models and demonstrations to bring the case to the jury.”

In the Dole case, Mardirossian and the other attorneys achieved a remarkable result. “This was not a case about hard damages. It was about people’s dignity.” Berke said.

What makes the verdict even more remarkable, he added, was that the jurors were aware of the county’s dire financial shape but weren’t constrained by that awareness. Art Rutlegde, a former deputy city attorney now in private practice, has tried cases against Mardirossian. “He’s a very thorough lawyer, very well prepared, especially in the damage phase. He’s very
ethical and very honest.”

Mardirossian was born in Syria to Armenian parents and moved with his family to Lebanon when he was 9. He has three sisters.

Two years later, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. A year later, the family moved to Los Angeles after his father visited California and proclaimed he had found the “real America.” Kevork Mardirossian still owns a service station in Los Angeles where young Garo worked. “I was a gas jockey until I entered law school,” he recalled.

Mardirossian graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics in 1978. In 1980, he graduated from Whittier Law School, was admitted to the bar the following year and started a practice.

While the Dole case in his biggest so far, Mardirossian has won other significant verdicts. With Berke, he obtained a $3.2 million verdict against General Motors in 1990 on behalf of 30 employees injured by exposure to a cloud of dangerous gas. In 1991, he obtained a $1 million verdict for a client who had been seriously injured when his bicycle was hit by a large truck.

In another police misconduct case, Mardirossian obtained a $625,000 verdict in 1992 for a Walnut man beaten by Long Beach Police.

In all his cases, Mardirossian said, he strives – through the demonstrative evidence – to tell jurors about the lives of his clients, “not just focus on the bad guys.”

With his success, Mardirossian practice has grown. It now includes five attorneys, including his wife, Kathy, and 15 support staff. It is something of a family business; he is related to five of the people who work there.

In the Dole case, Mardirossian said he hopes the county will make changes so the tragedy is not repeated. But he makes no apologies for obtaining monetary damages from the financially strapped county.

“We just wish we could reserve this whole process, they [the county] could have the money back, and this whole thing had never happened,” Mardirossian said.

As a friend of the family, not all the advice he offered was strictly legal. “They wanted to call off the wedding,” after the incident, he recalled. “But I insisted they should go through with it. I told them, ‘You can’t let the police run your lives.’ It was a little subdued, and we looked over our shoulders. But we had a celebration.”

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