The plaintiff was an administrative assistant working for Advanced Digital Data. Conklin v. Pinillos, No. A-5439-09 (App. Div. July 28, 2011). On May 24, 2007, she was told to take documents to the company's shipping room for delivery. According to the plaintiff, the defendant, the shipping room supervisor, kissed or tried to kiss her three times and grabbed her buttocks. After getting away, the plaintiff reported the incident to her employer and the defendant was terminated the next day. The plaintiff also filed a criminal complaint against the defendant, which led to a fourth-degree sexual contact charge that was resolved through pre-trial intervention ("PTI"). Further, the plaintiff filed a civil lawsuit against the defendant in which she asserted claims of sexual assault, battery, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
During the bench trial, the plaintiff testified, as did her husband and psychologist. The psychologist opined that because of the defendant's actions, the plaintiff suffered from an adjustment reaction with mixed emotional features, including anxiety and depression. When she testified, the plaintiff stated that she developed extremely high blood pressure, which required prescription medication, because of the incident with the defendant. However, the plaintiff did not present an expert to offer testimony about the alleged causal link between the sexual contact and her blood pressure. The defendant, who represented himself at trial, testified that he tried to kiss the plaintiff after she flirted with him. The defendant was also cross-examined extensively about the criminal charge and its disposition, and he offered vague, contradictory testimony about those proceedings.
At the conclusion of trial, the trial judge declared that the plaintiff's testimony was credible but that the defendant's was not. The court ruled in the plaintiff's favor on the sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims and then awarded her $50,000 in undifferentiated compensatory and punitive damages.
The Appellate Division reversed, citing several errors committed by the trial court. First, the Appellate Division found that the court should not have considered evidence of the plaintiff's high blood pressure without expert testimony establishing a causal link. In so doing, the Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff's claim that her lay opinion testimony was sufficient to prove causation. Although the plaintiff was an EMT, the Appellate Division explained that "as a high school graduate, she lacked the skill, training and experience to properly determine whether her elevated blood pressure was the result of defendant's conduct, particularly since plaintiff admitted to having a pre-existing heart condition. Similarly, there is no evidence that the judge was qualified to draw a conclusion as to causation. It being impossible to ascertain how much of the judge's verdict reflects the testimony that was not supported by medical evidence, we reverse for a new trial."
Second, the Appellate Division agreed with the defendant that the trial court erred in considering his "guilty plea" because the PTI disposition did not require a guilty plea. The Appellate Division determined that the trial court misused its discretion in allowing cross-examination with respect to the defendant's "guilty plea" and relying upon it in ruling in plaintiff's favor. Third, the Appellate Division opined that it was unclear whether the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to a jury trial, but it did not have to resolve that issue because the case was being remanded for a new trial. Lastly, the Appellate Division pointed out that the damages award was improper because it did not separate compensatory and punitive damages. In that regard, the trial court's ruling violated the Punitive Damages Act in several respects. Accordingly, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial.