SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out a $21.5 million jury verdict awarded to an Illinois man who claimed he was injured during an around-the-world cruise in 2011, after the man's former assistant came forward to say he had intentionally deleted emails that could have hurt his case.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ordered a new trial, saying she found the assistant's testimony at a hearing last month credible — and that newly uncovered emails expose "grave inconsistencies" with James R. Hausman's story.
Hausman, of Springfield, Illinois, sued Seattle-based Holland America Line in 2013. He said he suffered dizziness and seizures after an automatic sliding glass door improperly closed and struck his head as the vessel approached Honolulu. After a two-week trial in October, a jury awarded him $21.5 million.
But soon afterward, Hausman's former personal assistant, Amy Mizeur, came forward to say she had watched him spend several days deleting emails that he should have turned over to Holland America's lawyers before the trial. He also failed to disclose the existence of one of his email accounts, she said. Mizeur worked for Hausman at The Gold Center, a precious metals dealer in Springfield.
The allegations prompted Rothstein to hold a hearing last month. She found Mizeur credible; her former boss not.
"As a witness, he came across evasive and untrustworthy," the judge wrote. "He appeared to weigh each answer, not for its truthfulness, but to assess whether it would damage his case. Mr. Hausman also seemed to capitalize on his alleged brain injury when it was convenient for him. He was confused or claimed memory loss when confronted with a question or exhibit that appeared to undermine his claims, yet was animated and full or information when his testimony supported his case."
Further, Rothstein noted, some of the emails that Mizeur was able to recover — even after Hausman instructed her to delete them — "cast doubt on his veracity." For example, he testified at trial that since his injury he avoids using ladders because he is afraid of falling. But in one of the deleted emails, he wrote to Mizeur to say he was sore after spending most of the day on a 10-foot ladder using a fire ax to chop ice that had built up over the front porch of his house.
Nor did the judge believe Hausman's claims that he did not delete the emails to frustrate Holland America's defense, but simply as part of his routine practice of clearing out his inbox. The actions were deliberate and "substantially interfered with defendants' ability to fully and fairly prepare for and proceed to trial," Rothstein said.
Hausman portrayed Mizeur during the hearing as a disgruntled former employee who had been fired for forging a check. But the judge accepted Mizeur's explanation for why she signed his name to the check — that he had given her permission to do so. Hausman also said Mizeur had tried to extort him; she testified that she was simply shocked about having been accused of forgery and fired when she sent him a message suggesting that she would ruin his life if he didn't pay her off.
One of Hausman's attorneys, Richard Friedman, called the decision "frustrating and disappointing" but said it cannot be appealed.
"I've done a lot of retrials in my time, and often the verdict the second time around is bigger than the first," he said. He added that Rothstein's ruling "doesn't address Holland America's conduct that caused the injuries in the first place or the extent of his injuries."
In an emailed statement Tuesday, the company said it's pleased with Rothstein's order to vacate the previous judgment and grant a new trial.
"We look forward to the opportunity to present our case, including the most recent evidence on which this ruling was based, in the future," Holland America said.
No date has been set for the retrial.