Wed, May. 14, 2003
Jury: Firm isn’t liable in murder
BY HURST LAVIANA
Lawyer Chris Magana hugs his client, Pat Easter after a jury found that her family’s business was not responsible for the murder of Janice Vredenburg. PHOTO BY JAIME OPPENHEIMER, The Wichita Eagle
A Sedgwick County jury ruled Tuesday that a home restoration company was not to blame for the death of a Wichita woman who was murdered by a former employee of the company.
After just two hours of deliberations, the jury found that National Catastrophe Restoration Inc. was not at fault in the death of Janice Vredenburg, who was beaten and stabbed to death by parolee Tanner Green on March 27, 2000.
Seconds before the verdict was read, District Judge Rebecca Pilshaw warned those in the courtroom that she would tolerate no emotional outbursts. The courtroom remained silent as the verdict came in the form of a one-word answer to the question: Do you find NCRI to be at fault?
"No," was the jury’s reply.
As the verdict was read, company owners Nick and Pat Easter sat holding hands behind the defense table, while Vredenburg’s children, Kerry Jennings and Barry Manchester, sat quietly a few feet away behind the plaintiff’s table.
Green was hired by NCRI in January 2000 and was part of a crew sent to Vredenburg’s home to clean up after a broken water hose on a washing machine flooded her basement. Crews completed the work six weeks before Vredenburg was killed.
Gary Austerman, who represented the company during the two-week trial, said the facts of the case supported his clients’ contention that they were not to blame for Vredenburg’s murder.
"I believe the jury listened to the evidence and came up with the proper verdict," he said.
Gary Patterson, who represented Vredenburg’s children, said he was expecting a different outcome.
"We are frankly kind of stunned by the verdict," he said.
"I hope that it doesn’t send the wrong message to the public at large that it’s now OK to hire convicted criminals to come into our homes."
Patterson said no decision has been made on whether to appeal. The Easters and Vredenburg’s children declined to comment.
Pilshaw said the jury’s verdict was not unanimous, though she declined to release the exact vote. In civil cases, at least 10 of the 12 jurors must agree to a verdict.
After talking to the jury for more than an hour, Pilshaw said she concluded that the trial might have had a different outcome had it not been for the testimony of Green’s parole officer. She admitted that she failed to fully inform the company about Green’s past.
"This jury was not saying that businesses don’t have an obligation to ensure the safety of their clients," Pilshaw said. "They just felt that NCRI did an adequate job and were relying on a parole officer who should have known and should have told them about Tanner Green’s dangerous propensities."
Green, 26, was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a sentence of 50 years without possibility of parole at Lansing Correctional Facility.
During the civil trial, lawyers for the slain teacher’s family argued that NCRI officials put Vredenburg in danger by not checking Green’s criminal background before hiring him.
Green testified at the trial that he lied on his application, saying he had been convicted of battery for protecting his sister against an abusive spouse.
Green admitted on the stand that he actually was on parole for aggravated battery after attacking an Ellis County woman while trying to steal a stereo from her van.
NCRI lawyers argued during the trial that the Easters were misled by the state parole officers, who withheld information about Green’s violent past.
A parole officer admitted during her testimony that she violated department policy by not telling the company that just before he was hired, Green was convicted of knocking out an inmate’s eye with a padlock tied to a belt. The officer also said she failed to verify information on his employment application.
Austerman said he suspected that the parole officer’s admissions were the biggest factor in the jury’s reluctance to blame the Easters.
"What they found was a person who most likely didn’t do her job the way it should have been done," Austerman said.
Austerman said the Easters were relieved with the verdict and were looking forward to returning to private life and running their company.
"They run a very good business operation," Austerman said. "It was very hard on them."
Patterson said Vredenburg’s children turned down a settlement offer before taking the case to trial.
"They felt that taking the money and running away from this problem would not be the right thing to do," he said. "This was not about money for them. Believe it or not, it was about having their day in court and shedding light on this horrible, horrible problem."
Pilshaw said she thinks the trial was an important one.
"It has opened a lot of eyes," she said. "Mr. Manchester and his sister accomplished what they set out to do. They’ve done a good service to our community. This was by no means a frivolous lawsuit."
W. Barry Nixon
National Institute for the
Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc.
"Visitwww.Workplaceviolence911.com, the #1 site on the web for comprehensive information on workplace violence prevention"