Attorney says award is largest in county |

Attorney says award is largest in county

by Christy Chalmers, staff writer

The Nevada Supreme Court has ordered what a Gardnerville attorney says is the largest financial award ever in Douglas County and possibly the state.

In an Aug. 18 decision, the high court ordered stockbroker Warren House and the Stateline office of Dean Witter Reynolds to repay $4.1 million to the heirs of Elfreda Gardner, a former Douglas County resident. The decision increases a 1996 jury award of $2.6 million.

The supreme court also upheld the jury’s finding that Dean Witter should pay $6 million in punitive damages, while House should pay $50,000.

With interest calculated to the date of the 1996 trial, the award will be about $14 million, said Milos Terzich, one of Gardner’s lawyers.

“We think it’s a great victory for the small person against the gigantic corporation,” he said. “I think this is the largest single-plaintiff judgment in the state of Nevada. I know it’s the largest award ever in Douglas County.”

The order stems from an appeal of the trial verdict, in which the jury agreed Witter and House knowingly helped deplete Gardner’s estate by mishandling her money, and ordered $2.6 million in compensatory damages, as well as the punitive damages.

Also implicated was Gardner’s nephew Jack, who took control of $8 million worth of her assets and continued to transfer her assets to his own control after Elfreda died in 1993, despite a Dean Witter policy of freezing the accounts of deceased clients.

Jack Gardner’s estate made an out-of-court settlement with Elfreda’s estate, as did a bank, an executor of Jack Gardner’s estate and a lawyer.

Carson City District Judge Michael Griffin, who presided over the Douglas District Court case, reduced the compensatory damages to zero because of the settlements.

Both sides appealed, with Dean Witter and House claiming that the punitive damages should be reversed because no evidence of malice was shown, the award was excessive and Griffin had reduced the compensatory awards to zero.

Lawyers for Gardner’s estate said the evidence of the settlements shouldn’t have been introduced and the settlements shouldn’t be used to offset the compensatory award.

The Supreme Court agreed with Gardner’s lawyers and bumped the compensatory damages to $4.1 million. Terzich said the jury would probably have awarded that amount had the evidence of the previous settlements not been introduced.

The high court affirmed the punitive damages, writing in a unanimous opinion that there was “substantial evidence” for the jury’s finding of malice on the part of Dean Witter and House.