The president of Big Island Toyota said the company will continue to pursue its lawsuit against former company executive Victor Trevino Jr. despite an appellate court vacating a jury’s award in 2012 of more than $1.4 million dollars.
The state Intermediate Court of Appeals on Jan. 29 upheld Trevino’s appeal, ruling that Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara failed to properly recuse himself from the case after disclosing to the parties that he was a high school classmate of witness and former company executive Ivan Nakano. The judge also disclosed that, while he was still a practicing attorney, he was asked by Nakano to examine his severance agreement from Big Island Toyota.
Hara denied an oral motion by Trevino’s attorney, Kris LaGuire, to disqualify himself from the lawsuit. A written motion seeking Hara’s removal from the case was denied by Kona Circuit Judge Elizabeth Strance.
In an email statement, Jackie De Luz Watanabe, Big Island Toyota’s president, called the ICA opinion “far from the end of this case.”
“We believe that Mr. Trevino was found guilty by the jury, not the judge,” De Luz Watanabe wrote. “To be clear, it was Mr. Trevino that called Mr. Nakano as a witness not us and we have maintained all along that Mr. Nakano was not a material witness for either side in this case.”
Trevino, on Jan. 29, had referred to Nakano as “one of the key witnesses for the plaintiff.” It was LaGuire who called Nakano to testify in the civil trial, not Paul Saito, the attorney for the car dealership, on Feb. 8, 2012. According to the court minutes, LaGuire asked the judge for permission to treat Nakano as a hostile witness and Hara said that request could be remade if the need arose during direct examination.
Nakano was Trevino’s boss when Trevino was hired in 2003, but when Nakano left the company in 2004, he negotiated his terms of resignation with Trevino, according to the ICA opinion.
The jury returned its verdict on Feb. 17, 2012, awarding the Toyota plaintiffs $448,414 for breach of fiduciary duty, $20,000 for conversion, $112,425 for negligence and gross negligence and $193,250 for breach of contract. The jury also awarded the plaintiffs $626,942 for punitive damages against Trevino.
The car dealership had accused Trevino of stealing from the company, breaching his contract and fiduciary duty to the company, and leaving the company’s books in shambles.
According to court records, Hara disclosed his relationship with Nakano on Jan. 10, 2012, and LaGuire then made his oral motion for Hara to recuse himself.
The appellate court ruled that Hara “had an attorney-client relationship with Nakano in 2003” and that his presiding over the trial under the circumstances created an appearance of impropriety.
De Luz Watanabe disagreed with the ICA opinion, stating that Hara disclosed his relationship with Nakano to Trevino several times “which was not objected to.”
“Also Judge Strance ruled on this very subject during the trial and validated that it was not a conflict to have Judge Hara preside,” she wrote. “… The truth is the truth, not a technicality.”
The ICA opinion remands the case back to the 3rd Circuit. If the case were to be heard again on the Big Island, it would not be heard by either Hara or Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura, who recused himself in 2006 when the lawsuit was filed because his father had been a longtime employee of the car dealership.
That leaves Strance and fellow Kona Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra, who is the 3rd Circuit’s chief judge, if the case is to be heard by a Big Island circuit judge.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.