Posted on Mar 21, 2006
Millions of Dollars Awarded to Family of Man Killed by Toxicologist Wife
By: North County Times News Service -
SAN DIEGO - A jury Monday awarded $6 million in actual damages and $100 million in punitive damages to the family of a man fatally poisoned by his wife, a toxicologist who worked for San Diego County at the time.
For the smaller damages award, the jury found Kristin Rossum 75 percent responsible for husband Gregory de Villers' Nov. 6, 2000, death and the county 25 percent responsible.
The punitive damages were awarded to prevent the imprisoned 29-year-old woman from making a profit on her life story, either on a book or movie deal, said jury foreman Lyle Koonts of San Carlos.
He said jurors felt Rossum had the capability to make as much as $60 million by selling the rights to her life story, so they doubled the $50 million in punitive damages sought by the de Villers family.
The county is not liable for punitive damages in the case, so the $100 million award applies only to Rossum.
Senior Deputy County Counsel Deborah A. McCarthy said she is confident that the jury award will be reversed on appeal.
"It is not the duty of the county of San Diego to prevent a wife from murdering her husband," McCarthy said outside court. "If this case stands, it will expand public liability in a way the state of California never envisioned."
The wrongful death suit was filed on behalf of de Villers' parents, Yves and Marie, who died in 2003. Her $3 million share of the actual damages award will go to her sons Jerome and Bertrand, who attended the trial with their father.
"I think justice is done," Yves de Villers said outside court.
Jerome Bertrand, who pressed authorities to look into his brother's death after it was initially ruled a suicide, said his mother and brother are always with him.
"I think they'd be pretty happy right now," he told reporters. "They're always looking out for us."
He said the jury award forced the county to "apologize in a sense."
Betrand de Villers told reporters he felt Greg helping his family along throughout the whole ordeal.
"He was there in spirit, saying `Keep going, keep fighting,"' the brother said. "I think today was a pretty good day."
John H. Gomez, the attorney for the de Villers family, told the jury that the Medical Examiner's Office failed to supervise Rossum and was responsible for her getting drugs at work and ultimately poisoning her husband with the rarely used and hard-to-detect painkiller fentanyl.
But McCarthy told the jury that Rossum was a killer who just happened to be a county employee at the time she committed her crime.
Officials at the Medical Examiner's Office were told they didn't have to do a drug test or a background check on Rossum when she applied to become a toxicologist because she was already a student worker, McCarthy said.
Even if a drug test had been done, there is no evidence that Rossum would have failed it, she said, adding that Rossum, a methamphetamine addict, relapsed only a week or two before she murdered her husband.
But one juror said the majority of the panel felt the county was remiss in not doing a background or drug check on Rossum.
The fact that the county allowed Rossum access to drugs also played a big part in the panel's decision, the juror said.
Another juror said she voted for Rossum to pay $200 million in punitive damages so there wouldn't be any chance that she'd get away with any money.
The jury did not hold Rossum's supervisor, Michael Robertson, financially responsible. She was having an affair with her boss at the time she killed her husband.
Robertson moved back to his native Australia before Rossum was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in late 2002, at age 26, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She is appealing her conviction.
Rossum staged an "American Beauty" suicide scene at her La Jolla apartment, according to prosecutors, to make it look like her 26-year-old husband killed himself.
Fresh red rose petals were found around the victim's head and shoulders, and his wedding photograph was propped up near his head in a scene reminiscent of one in the 1999 movie.
After awarding $6 million in actual damages, the jury heard from one witness in the punitive damages phase of the trial.
Melissa St. James, a marketing professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, testified that Rossum was a "notorious" criminal who could sell the rights to her story for $2.5 million or more. She also said Rossum's future earning potential was "unlimited."
On a scale of one to 10, with the O.J. Simpson trial being a 10, Rossum was "about a six," the witness said.
"This story has every element that Hollywood looks for," St. James testified.
She said the so-called "Son of Sam" law, which prohibits felons from profiting from the sale of their crime stories, was struck down by the California Supreme Court in 2002.
She said John Wayne Gacy Jr., the notorious Chicago serial killer who raped and murdered 33 men and boys, once made $140,000 by selling his artwork.
Former mobster Salvatore Gravano, whose testimony helped convict mob boss John Gotti, earned at least $1 million when he sold the movie rights to his story, St. James testified.
She said bank robber Sonny Wortzik earned 2 percent of the profits from the movie "Dog Day Afternoon," which was based on his crime.
The name Kristin Rossum generated more than 250,000 "hits" on "Google," the most popular search engine on the Internet, St. James said.
"That's pretty high," the witness told the jury.
Gomez told the jury that Rossum's mother, Constance, was a college-level marketing professor who was likely to pursue a lucrative book or movie deal for her daughter.
"There's no doubt this family's going to try to profit from what Kristin Rossum did," Gomez said.
The plaintiffs played a television interview Rossum did with the show "48 Hours," in which she said her husband probably killed himself because he had frequently told her he couldn't live without her.