A federal judge has granted a request for a new trial for the New York-based financial management company that lost a highly publicized $50.9 million civil judgment last year to Patricia Cornwell, the noted crime writer who lives in Boston.
In an 11-page decision Tuesday, US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. agreed to dismiss some of the claims initially filed against the company, Anchin, Block & Anchin, LLP, and its former principal, Evan Snapper, who was in charge of Cornwell’s finances.
Although O’Toole refused to dismiss other claims, finding there was enough evidence for a jury to decide on them, he acknowledged that it was impossible to determine which claims served as the basis for the jury’s $50.9 million judgment.
“There is no way to assess what the verdict on the remaining claims properly subject to jury evaluation would have been,” the judge said.
Joan Lukey, of Ropes & Gray of Boston, Cornwell’s attorney, said Tuesday night that she and Cornwell were disappointed with the ruling, but still upbeat and committed to the case.
“Patricia brought this action because she wanted to vindicate a principal that financial institutions have to treat their clients appropriately,” Lukey said. “As far as we’re concerned, the jury spoke loud and clear on that subject. It’s unfortunate the judge didn’t see that the same way, but [Cornwell] intends to vindicate what the jury did for her, so she will take all the appropriate steps to vindicate the jury’s verdict.”
Frank Schettino, managing partner of Anchin, said in a statement that the company was gratified by the judge’s decision, and that “we look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate that the remaining claims brought by plaintiffs are equally devoid of merit.”
It was unclear Tuesday when a new trial will be scheduled, but both sides indicated they would rather have a new trial than settle out of court.
Cornwell, a native of Florida best known for her series of crime novels featuring the heroic medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta, had sued Anchin and Snapper for negligence in the handling of her finances. She alleged that Snapper and his colleagues had managed her finances, and those of her wife and company, in a way that would personally benefit them. Cornwell, her wife, and company also alleged they lost tens of millions of dollars in investment losses or unaccounted revenue over four years.
The case had all the makings of one of Cornwell’s novels, with stories of helicopter rides, a rare book collection, and unaccounted-for cars.
After a 26-day trial that ended in February 2013, the jury awarded Cornwell $50.9 million, including $22.4 million in punitive damages, on core counts of negligence, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty. The jury foreman told the Globe that the decision was fair and a message to Anchin that, “If you are performing on someone else’s behalf, you have a responsibility toward them.”
Three months after Cornwell’s verdict, Anchin was sued by another former client making similar negligence claims.
In Cornwell’s case, O’Toole was reviewing the case “as a matter of law,” according to procedure, and he dismissed several claims based on legal technicalities. For instance, the judge acknowledged after reviewing New York laws that he erroneously instructed the jury on statute of limitation laws related to breach of fiduciary duty claims. Cornwell had contended that the company’s breach of its duties, including causing her to miss a book deadline, cost her millions of dollars.
In another instance, the judge found that the jury wrongfully considered evidence that Snapper violated his duties by reporting possible campaign finance violations by Cornwell to the US Department of Justice.
Snapper would have had a privilege of confidentiality in reporting the possible violations, the judge determined.
According to evidence in the trial, Cornwell, 57, was never charged with any campaign wrongdoing, and Snapper ultimately pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations.
O’Toole said in his ruling Tuesday that the claim about the missed book deadline made “the largest single element of the various claims of damage.”
The judge refused to dismiss other claims, and said there was no way to know how the jury viewed the case, but said a new trial was warranted.