A Superior Court jury on Friday ruled that a teenager who was pretending to be Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig was not negligent when he accidentally let go of an aluminum bat that hit Fresno architect John “Chuck” Heflebower in the face during a Fourth of July backyard barbecue three years ago.
The jury of eight men and four women said Heflebower, 56, was not participating in a sports game with his two sons and their teenage friend, Ryan Beard, when he got hit with a bat, but he knew the sports game was happening.
The jury also ruled that Beard’s conduct was not reckless when he accidentally flung the bat.
The verdict was a devastating blow to Heflebower and his attorneys, who were seeking $2.7 million in damages because the incident disfigured Heflebower’s face and caused him pain, anxiety, humiliation and mental suffering. If Heflebower had been successful in proving his case, damages would have been paid by the homeowners insurance of the teen’s parents.
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This was the third jury to hear evidence in the civil trial. The first two trials ended in mistrials.
The verdict was a devastating blow to John “Chuck” Heflebower and his attorneys, who were seeking $2.7 million in damages because the incident disfigured Heflebower’s face and caused him, pain, anxiety, humiliation and mental suffering.
Heflebower suffered a Le Fort III fracture, one of the worst kind of skull fractures.
Before the injury, Heflebower and his wife, Alma, and their two sons, Tyler and Joshua, enjoyed a good life. He was an architect, outgoing, financially stable and actively involved in his sons’ lives, said Fresno attorney Jason Helsel, who represented Heflebower.
After he was hit with the bat, Heflebower sank into depression, began drinking, and now has an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. His homemaker wife had to get a job to keep the family financially afloat, Helsel told the jury.
The bat crushed Heflebower’s nose, cheekbones and eye socket bones. Helsel told the jury that Heflebower has had to endure several surgeries in which doctors used titanium plates to re-create his facial features. Heflebower also has recurring headaches and double vision and his jaw constantly hurts because his teeth don’t line up, he said. “He will never swallow normal again,” Helsel said in his closing remarks on Wednesday.
Heflebower still needs more surgeries and counseling, Helsel said.
Both sides agree that on July 4, 2013, Beard, who was 16 at the time, and the Heflebowers were guests at the northeast Fresno home of Debby and Guy Desrosiers near Fort Washington Golf and Country Club. During the barbecue, Beard and Heflebower’s two sons played a game of home run derby.
In defending Beard, attorneys Arthur J. Casey and Colin McCarthy of San Jose said Heflebower knew the risk of being on the playing field with his two sons and Beard. Casey also contended Heflebower even took a swing with the bat at one point during the game.
Casey described Heflebower’s injuries as an unfortunate accident, saying Beard did not cause them deliberately.
A key issue in the trial is the legal doctrine of “assumption of risk.”
A key issue in the trial is the legal doctrine of “assumption of risk.” For example, if two people are skiing down the same slope and accidentally bump into each other, they can’t sue if one of them gets hurt. The same concept applies to games involving baseballs, Casey said.
Helsel argued that the home run derby game ended when the gathering ate dinner. After dinner, Heflebower went for a swim. Heslel told the jury that Heflebower got hit in the face with the bat after he got out of the pool and was looking for a towel.
Casey, however, argued that Heflebower knew Beard was still playing in the backyard with the bat.
After the verdict was announced, Helsel said jurors told him that they wanted to compensate Heflebower, but didn’t want to strap a young man like Beard with damages. Jurors also took into account that the barbecue brought together friends who didn’t intend for someone to get hurt.