Five years ago, a Cherry Avenue Auction vendor was electrocuted and killed and his wife was seriously injured when they accidentally lifted their 28-foot advertisement banner attached to a metal pole into high-voltage power lines.
On Tuesday, a Fresno County Superior Court civil jury awarded Araceli Zuniga $12.25 million in damages, ruling Cherry Avenue Auction owners Mitch and Neil Burson were negligent in the death of Zuniga’s husband, Jose Flores, on Aug. 24, 2013.
Afterward, Sherman Oaks attorney Arash Homampour, who represented Zuniga in the wrongful death trial, said “there’s a certain beauty” attached to the verdict.
That’s because Homampour told jurors last week in closing arguments that he was offended by the way the auction had portrayed Zuniga and her dead husband as Spanish-speaking vendors who weren’t worth much because they sold auto parts.
Homampour, however, argued that in America’s justice system, it doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor. The law requires everyone to be treated the same, he said.
“They did the right thing,” Homampour said after the verdict. “The people of Fresno should be proud of this jury.”
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated about eight hours over two days before awarding Zuniga $3.25 million for past and future pain from the loss of her husband’s love, protection and moral support; $3 million for Zuniga’s past and future emotional distress; and $6 million for having to see her husband die.
Because the jury found Zuniga and Flores 22.5 percent at fault, Cherry Avenue Auction is on the hook for the remaining 77.5 percent, which is about $9.5 million in damages.
Mitch Burson, who witnessed the verdict in Judge Donald Black’s courtroom, and his lawyer, John Beebe, of Sacramento, declined to comment. But during the trial, Burson called the incident “a tragic accident.” Beebe argued that Flores and Zuniga were solely responsible for Flores’ death since they should have know power lines are dangerous.
But Homampour, who was assisted by co-counsel, Armine Safarian, said the law requires property owners to inspect and identify any unsafe condition and correct them to prevent injury or death. “The defendants unfortunately didn’t do that, and knew or should have known of this horrifically unsafe condition,” Homampour said. “As a result of (the auction owners’) negligence, Mr. Flores died.”
The auction at Cherry and American avenues, south of Fresno, is the area’s oldest and biggest outdoor swap meet, according to the Cherry Avenue Auction website.
Testimony revealed the auction has 800 spaces to rent, but 20 of them are under power lines. Zuniga and her husband had rented space at the auction eight times before Flores’ death – but their booth was always away from the power lines, so they were unaware of the dangers the power lines posed, Homampour said.
When Jose Flores was electrocuted, it was the first time the couple was given a space under the power lines, Homampour said.
The death was tragic, Homampour said, because Jose Flores was 36 years old when he was electrocuted. His wife was 25 years old at the time. They were married in 2009 and lived in Tulare, Safarian said.
The power lines were 26.5 feet from the ground.
In closing arguments, Homampour said the couple didn’t see the power lines as they lifted their banner because their view was blocked by the canopy covering their booth. He also said auction officials never pointed out the power lines to the couple, nor did they post signs to warn of their dangers.
In his closing, Homampour reminded the jury that Neil Burson testified that the power lines were not an obvious danger to him. Mitch Burson testified he knew of the power lines but did nothing to warn vendors, the lawyer said. In addition, the brothers have no formal inspection program or someone trained in identifying hazardous conditions, he said.
“They created a dangerous hazard by selling vendor spaces under high-voltage power lines,” Homampour told the jury. “Now someone is dead because they wanted to rent 20 more spaces.”
The auction also has done little or nothing to prevent another “tragic death,” the lawyer said. During the trial, Homampour hired an investigator to take photographs of advertisement banners used by other vendors. The investigator, Kevin Roncevich, a former Cypress police officer, testified that he took photographs of banners that were up to 34 feet high.
But Beebe told the jury that the auction has operated more than four decades without someone getting electrocuted. He said the power lines have been in place since the 1930s.
Beebe said Zuniga and her husband should have known power lines were dangerous, arguing it is an obvious hazard. He said it was up to the couple to make sure they lifted their banner safely into the air.
“Power lines are everywhere,” Beebe said. “Common sense says to stay away from them.”