A Ventura County jury awarded $186,000 to a Moorpark College art teacher Monday after finding that he was slandered and libeled by a female colleague who accused him of sexual harassment.
Kirk D. Aiken sued Pamela Zwehl-Burke for damages after she alleged that he pressed his body to hers in an art class in 1989 and whispered, "I'm so horny, I want you so much," according to court documents.
The jury ordered Zwehl-Burke, 45, to pay $1,000 damages to Aiken, 49, and levied higher damages against the college district and a district official who reprimanded Aiken over the incident. The jury ordered the district and Vicki Bortolussi, vice president of instruction, each to pay Aiken $92,500.
The jury of seven women and five men also ruled in Aiken's favor by rejecting a cross-complaint for sexual harassment that Zwehl-Burke filed in response to the suit. That complaint alleged that Aiken's behavior caused Zwehl-Burke to suffer humiliation, mental anguish and "loss of the ability to concentrate and focus her creative energies for the continuing production of works of art."
Aiken's attorney declined to comment on the verdicts, but he said slander cases are "very difficult and unusual to prove."
"The first thing that makes a slander case hard is that you have to have witnesses," said Gary Bostwick, a Santa Monica attorney. "A libel case is pretty clear, because if it's in Playboy magazine, you know it went to 2 million people. With slander, you have to prove publication. Somebody had to be told."
Libel and slander are both methods of defamation. Libel is generally expressed in writing while slander is spoken.
Zwehl-Burke, who is now an instructor at Santa Barbara City College, and Ventura County Community College District Vice Chancellor John Tallman declined to comment on the verdict Monday. Bortolussi could not be reached for comment.
College district officials met with the district's insurance company Monday afternoon to decide whether to appeal the verdicts, and to determine whether the insurance would pay the damages, Trustee Gregory Cole said.
Cole added: "With sexual harassment, as with other areas of the law that are relatively new, we have to be assured we apply the laws that the Legislature has given us, and the federal government has given us, as fairly as we can."
The jurors were ordered not to discuss the case and to return to Judge Edwin M. Osborne's court today. Bostwick and court officials would not discuss why the jurors were returning. In some defamation cases, juries consider punitive damages after deciding the issue of defamation.
The suit stems from an art class demonstration that Zwehl-Burke, a part-time instructor, was setting up for her printmaking students at Moorpark College on Jan. 17, 1989.
According to court documents, Zwehl-Burke complained to college district officials that Aiken walked into the classroom, where at least 15 students were waiting for her to set up an etching press for the demonstration.
"'Mr. Aiken advanced toward me, pressed his body against mine, engulfed me and said, 'I'm so horny, I want you so much,' " said Zwehl-Burke's written complaint to the college district.
"I pushed him away, backed around to the other side of the etching press on which I had been laying newsprint, and said, 'Stop! What are you doing?' " the complaint said.
After an investigation by district officials, Bortolussi issued a letter of reprimand to Aiken and placed it in his personnel file.
"There is evidence to support a finding of sexual harassment," said the letter. "Sexual harassment is unacceptable conduct which is unlawful and will not be tolerated by this district."
The letter warned that any further such conduct could prompt the district to discipline Aiken severely.
According to Aiken's suit, filed three months later, the complaint unfairly accused him of sexual harassment and spread the unjust accusations to school officials.
The lawsuit asked compensation for "damages to his reputation, name and standing in the community," and for "damages to his profession as a teacher and his occupation."
Aiken testified during the trial that he missed about 70 days of work because of anxiety over the accusation, Bostwick said.
"He testified he simply could not go back to school," Bostwick said. "He would go every day, and his concern about what people were saying or thinking made him so nervous or unsure of himself that he couldn't go on."
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts. Two who testified on Zwehl-Burke's behalf said Aiken approached her from behind, not from the front as she had described the encounter. Two who testified for Aiken said they did not recall anything happening. If there was an incident, they said, it was so minor that it did not disrupt the class.
The jury voted unanimously in their verdicts against Zwehl-Burke and the college district, and 11 to 1 in their verdict against Bortolussi. Unlike criminal cases, which require unanimous verdicts, civil cases can be decided on majority votes of 9 to 3 or greater.