TORRANCE — The widow of an armored car guard shot to death in a department store robbery five years ago was awarded $442,500 last week by a Superior Court jury that found the store to be negligent.
In a 9-3 decision after three days of deliberation, the jury found that Ohrbach's Inc. was negligent for not warning the guard after two of its security officers followed one of the robbers, Jose L. Fuentes, for at least 15 minutes before the holdup. According to trial testimony, the security personnel suspected that Fuentes was going to shoplift at the store, which is at Del Amo Fashion Center.
Instead, Fuentes and another man attempted at gunpoint to take more than $80,000 in cash and checks from Brink's guard Paul Martinez, 36, of Pico Rivera. In an exchange of gunfire, Martinez was fatally shot and Fuentes seriously wounded. The other robber escaped.
"I was very disappointed in the ruling," said Thomas Breslin, attorney for Ohrbach's. "I have nothing against the jury system, but I still think they were wrong."
Will Ask for New Trial
He said he plans to file a motion for a new trial because of what he called insufficient evidence of negligence. He said Ohrbach's also could appeal if the motion for a new trial is denied.
Although the judgment was less than the $3.25 million sought in the lawsuit filed by Martinez's widow, Lupe, her attorney, Michael Piuze, said he and his client are satisfied.
"Needless to say, Mrs. Martinez is very pleased," he said, "and I am pleased we got close to what we originally asked for to settle. And, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case like this in the country where an armored car guard was concerned."
He would not say how much of the award would go for legal fees.
Ohrbach's argued that its security officers were only keeping a suspected shoplifter under surveillance and that there was no need to warn the guard. Also, it was claimed that because the store hires Brink's to protect the transfer of large amounts of cash, it should not be held responsible for the armored car employees.
"It was Brink's that was robbed, not Ohrbach's," Breslin said. "That is why we hire Brink's, to guard against such happenings.
"Ohrbach's--like any other department store--is concerned about security and protecting its customers and employees," Breslin said. "This was a vicious, unforeseeable crime, and our position remains that Ohrbach's acted in an ethically and morally correct way."
Piuze said that with better training of store security personnel, Martinez might have been warned about Fuentes and might be alive today.
Piuze said one of the two Ohrbach's security employees involved in the incident testified that he was not trained to know what day or time Brink's came to collect store receipts, nor did he know what door or route the guards used.
Fuentes, convicted of Martinez's murder in 1981, was found to have committed the crime under special circumstances--the armed robbery--and was sentenced to death. Last month, however, the state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence, ruling that the jury sentencing him had been wrongly instructed about when capital punishment can be applied.