Monthly Archives: August 2013

…custody of non-existent grandchildren

Defendant loses post trial motions in case where plaintiff arrested for interfering with custody of non-existent grandchildren

Last summer, in a state claim of malicious prosecution brought in Philadelphia, James, Schwartz & Associates, secured a jury verdict of $150,000 plus $1,000 in punitive damages in favor of Joyce Combs and against the detective who arrested her.  On August 1, 2013, the Honorable Annette Rizzo denied Defendant’s post trial motions, opening the door for an appeal.  Post-judgment interest now brings the award to $160,000.  This was the highest award for an intentional tort in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the year 2012.

Plaintiff was arrested and charged with, inter alia, interfering with the custody of her infant grandchildren.  The charges stemmed from an allegation made by Plaintiff’s estranged daughter.  The arrest warrant was not executed for ten months when Plaintiff was escorted out in handcuffs in front of the students at the elementary school where she worked for 15 years (over 30 years with the Philadelphia School District) s a special needs aide.

The problem with the criminal prosecution was that the grandchildren did NOT exist.  Plaintiff’s theory that the defendant failed to investigate, failed to follow police directives regarding the investigation of missing children, and failed to follow police directives requiring law enforcement personnel to  re-investigate once the information becomes stale and the warrant has not been issued within 30 days,   The detective failed to investigate Plaintiff, or any other witness identified as having knowledge about the case, and was caught in significant fabrications about what she did do, including NOT interviewing the so-called mother in person at her home as indicated in the interview form.

At trial, the defense theory was that the detective did everything in her power to locate the missing children.  The jury necessarily rejected her testimony and found that the detective’s conduct constituted willful conduct, and that her actions were so outrageous (exhibiting a reckless disregard for the rights of Plaintiff) to warrant the imposition of punitive damages.

On post trial motions, defendant took a different tack, and argued that a failure to investigate may be negligent or even grossly negligent but does not amount to willful misconduct.  Plaintiff’s position is that the appeals court does not have to reach that issue because here the detective’s conduct rose above gross negligence particularly here where the detective’s credibility was called seriously into issue, and for that reason, the issue of willful misconduct was a jury question.