CVN screenshot of plaintiff attorney Christian Morris delivering her closing argument
Las Vegas, NV - A Nevada state court jury has returned a verdict of more than $7.2 million for the parents of a college student killed in a collision with a Las Vegas flooring company’s van, and the proceedings were recorded gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
The jury returned the verdict on March 7 in favor of plaintiffs Cheryl and Michael Cifuni for the 2017 death of their daughter Mikayla following a trial that began March 1. Mikayla, who was 19 years old and attending the University of Las Vegas at the time, died after defendant Gheorghe Chitescu rear-ended her car while driving roughly 65 mph.
While the court issued a summary judgment ruling in favor of the plaintiffs finding Chitescu liable for the accident, his attorneys maintained his wife and co-defendant Alina Dillman did not negligently entrust him with the use of a van operated by the flooring company she owned, Roflooring Inc., and that Chitescu was not acting as an employee of the company when the crash occurred.
However in addition to the damages award the jury also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the scope of employment and negligent entrustment claims.
Attorney Christian Morris of the Nettles Morris Law Firm, who represented the Cifunis, told CVN after the trial the defense never made a settlement offer higher than $50,000, the maximum on Chitescu’s individual insurance policy, due to their position the flooring company wasn’t liable.
“My main goal was to hook the corporate policy,” Morris said.
Ryan Dennett of Dennett Winspear, who represented the defendants, told CVN the defendants offered an additional $50,000 personally, for a total of $100,000, but that the offer was rejected by the plaintiffs.
Morris explained she initially made a $650k offer of judgment before the trial knowing it would likely be rejected.
“I wanted an offer of judgment I could beat out there,” she said, noting that the fact the defense suggested in their closing argument an award of $1.8 million clearly showed their denial of the $650k offer was unreasonable, a decision she said could allow her to recover a substantial amount in fees and costs.
Although the award fell short of the more than $25.5 million in compensatory damages Morris sought for the Cifunis, she said her conversations with jurors after the trial suggested the total award would have been much larger had the court not issued a directed verdict in favor of the defense on the question of punitive damages.
“Their verdict would have been much higher had they been able to assess punitives,” she said.
Morris said jurors told her they responded well to her flexible demeanor in the courtroom, explaining that while she always prepares detailed scripts and outlines she doesn’t feel constrained by them at trial.
“There is this stiffness to attorneys where they have this script and they stick to and they stop listening and reacting in the courtroom. I call it ‘trial brain,’” she said. “They get scared and they stick to their script. I make scripts for everything but I don’t actually use them, because I’m having a conversation.”
Morris said she trains younger associates at her firm to react in the moment to what a witness actually said and not only what they're expected to say.
“Whenever you direct someone you have to listen to their answers and move on organically from what they say,” Morris said.
She encouraged younger attorneys to do the legwork in terms of preparing their witnesses, but to trust that preparation will still pay dividends even if it means reacting to something in the moment in a way that wasn’t planned.
She also stressed that jurors recognize and respond to authenticity and can easily discern it from artificial performance.
“Be a relatable human,” she said. “That’s what makes good trial lawyers.”
Morris emphasized that damages awards in trials like this don’t reflect a monetary value of an individual’s life.
“I think it is very difficult to value a life, and I do not think that $7.2 million is the value of Mikayla’s life, or that that’s what the jury intended,” Morris said. "I think what they intended to do is compensate in some way for the pain that the family feels, but the value of life is not something that comes from the jury and that’s the definitive answer.”
The Cifunis were also represented by Jamie McInelly, Victoria Allen and Racheal A. Ross of the Nettles Morris Law Firm.
The trial took place before Judge Erika Ballou.
The case is captioned Cheryl Cifuni v. Gheorghe Chitescu, et al., case number A-19-794534-C in Nevada's Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org