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    Court voids notable domestic abuse award

    An appellate court overturns the $1.7-million verdict against a businessman accused of battering his former girlfriend.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 6, 2001


    An appeals court Wednesday overturned a $1.7-million jury verdict against a former Treasure Island city commissioner accused by a former girlfriend of beating her.

    The judgment against businessman George W. Garbutt was hailed in 1997 by advocates for battered women as one of the largest ever levied in Florida civil courts against someone accused of domestic violence.

    But the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that an attorney for Rosemary Lafarnara, the former girlfriend, made improper comments during his closing argument to a jury four years ago. So the court ordered a new trial.

    The appeals court did not describe the improper argument. But Garbutt's attorneys had previously accused Lafarnara's attorney, Robert Merkle, of impugning their integrity and improperly accusing them of lying to jurors, among other things.

    Garbutt, 74, and his attorneys did not return calls for comment. Merkle said he planned a swift appeal of the decision.

    "I think the jurors in this case will be as surprised, shocked and troubled by this ruling as I am," Merkle said. "My closing was not just appropriate, it was based on the evidence."

    Garbutt served nearly 15 years on the Treasure Island City Commission, leaving in 1987. He met Lafarnara at the end of 1985 at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio where she was an instructor. The couple moved in together in March 1987 and lived together for about two years, according to court testimony.

    Lafarnara, 65, testified that Garbutt beat her repeatedly. She said she was knocked unconscious twice and suffered two concussions. Garbutt, who was not charged criminally, denied the allegations.

    After the couple broke up, Garbutt stalked Lafarnara, often making threatening phone calls laced with "demonic laughter," Merkle said at trial. The phone calls and stalking continued throughout the trial, according to testimony, and Garbutt even called his former girlfriend the day after the jury returned its verdict, Merkle has previously said.

    Lafarnara sued Garbutt for assault, battery, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury award included both punitive and compensatory damages.

    The appeals court earlier had refused to grant a new trial because Garbutt's lawyers did not, at trial, object to improper statements during the closing argument.

    But the new decision came after the Florida Supreme Court clarified that an attorney need not object immediately when the statement is made, so long as an objection is made soon afterward.

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