District Judge Mike Griffin refused Thursday to reduce a $5.8 million jury-ordered award for six-acres of land in the freeway bypass in south Carson City.
The state plans to build an interchange reconnecting the bypass with Highway 395 south and the Spooner Summit interchange at Highway 50 on that six-acre parcel. But how much the state should pay has been the center of a legal battle since the Nevada Department of Transportation condemned it in 1994. While state appraisers said it was worth only $1.75 million, owner John Serpa's appraisers said the value was at least $3.5 million and could be more than $6 million.
A Carson City jury agreed with Serpa in September, setting the land value at $5,759,500. The state asked Judge Griffin to either toss that verdict out or arbitrarily cut the amount to a maximum of $3.5 million.
Thursday morning Griffin refused. And since the state was required to post the money for the property by Nov. 2, that means the state had to cut a check and get it over to the court.
"They have to pay before they can appeal," said Serpa's lawyer Laura Fitzsimmons. "It's the only kind of civil case they have to pay in full or they're not allowed to appeal."
Deputy Attorney General Pierre Gezelin said the money was on its way: "We'll deposit it with the clerk of the court."
But he said NDOT Director Tom Stephens was out of town Thursday and the state has not yet decided whether to appeal.
Griffin's ruling rejected state arguments that the verdict was excessive, higher than Serpa's appraisers put on the property, and was above any other land values in the area. He also found no evidence that the jury disregarded instructions or ignored the evidence in the case.
"The court may not substitute it's judgment for that of the jury unless the jury erred as a matter of law," Griffin wrote.
The state argued the value of the land was much lower because no access would ever be granted onto surrounding arterial streets needed to make it a good shopping center site. But Griffin said the jury was within its rights to agree with Serpa that access would most likely be allowed because the property meets standard criteria to get it.
"There is absolutely no evidence presented that would suggest that the jurors were incited by passion, prejudice or corruption to give an excessively large verdict in favor of Serpa," Griffin concluded. "Just because the amount of the verdict was sizable is now indicative of whether it is excessive."
He refused to overturn the jury verdict in the case.
"They have nothing to appeal," said Fitzsimmons. "They would be attacking their own witnesses. It's going to be a frivolous appeal and I'm not the least bit worried about it."
Gezelin said he wouldn't comment until he and state officials review the ruling.