A jury yesterday socked Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Willis Berry Jr. with an order to pay a woman more than $180,000 after finding that he defrauded her in a real-estate deal more than a decade ago and that he had acted outrageously in doing so.
Berry, 67, sitting at the defense table, just shook his head.
The outcome stunned the judge who presided over the three-day trial. After the jury was dismissed, Common Pleas Senior Judge Charles B. Smith, an out-of-county judge who was asked to hear the case, told the attorneys and other observers in the City Hall courtroom: "I am, of course, shocked like most of you are."
Berry's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said afterward that he plans to file a post-trial motion before Smith to have him reconsider the verdicts and the damages.
The case centers on events from 1993 to 1995. On March 15, 1993, Denise Jackson, then known as Denise Cleveland, slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of an empty lot at 1533 W. Girard Avenue, which was next to Berry's then-law office.
Berry, then a practicing attorney, filed a personal-injury lawsuit on Jackson's behalf.
The 1533 W. Girard property was owned by an Andre Hines, who died in 1992 in an accident.
During this week's trial, the defense contended that Berry had gone through proper procedures and had first gotten the Hines property as the settlement for Jackson in her personal-injury case. But, it contended that she did not want the property and then sold it to Berry, receiving $1,500 in return.
Jackson, 57, testified that her injuries had not been serious and that she thought the amount sufficient.
But she also said that although her signature appeared on deeds related to the property transfers, she had no idea she ever owned the lot and also had no idea she then sold it.
She said she signed papers that Berry told her to sign because she trusted him as her attorney. "When I was handed papers by Berry to sign, I was told to sign, never to read," she testified.
She said she did not become aware of the property transfers until an Inquirer reporter contacted her in 2007. Later that year, she sued Berry for fraudulent misrepresentation.
Her attorney, Barry Yaches, said in his closing argument yesterday that the case was about Berry's "greed and his efforts to use his client's personal-injury case as a vehicle to acquire" the lot at 1533 W. Girard Ave.
Evidence in the trial indicated that Hines had bought the property in 1988 for $25,000. Last year, it was appraised at $180,000.
The eight-person jury deliberated for three hours yesterday. It awarded Jackson $180,000 in punitive damages - after finding that the judge has "acted in an ooutrageous manner" - and $9,858.72 in compensatory damages.
One juror said afterward that the compensatory amount had been calculated by subtracting the $1,500 Jackson had received from the property's fair-market value as it was listed on a 1995 real-estate-transfer-tax document.
Jackson said after the verdicts: "I'm surprised. It takes a little absorbing." She said she was happy.
Asked if she would take the property as the $180,000 payment, she said that if it comes to that, she would likely "sell it and go from there."
The case had previously gone to trial in June, but Smith declared a mistrial after a defense witness said things on the stand that she had been told not to say.
Berry still faces a lawsuit filed last year by the Hines estate.