Facebook Twitter

Jury again slaps Utah’s Price

Punitive-damage award is placed at $5.5 million

SHARE Jury again slaps Utah’s Price

A jury has awarded $5.5 million in punitive damages to former business associates of Utah developer and Republican activist John Price.

Price's fortune is well in excess of $55 million, according to plaintiffs' estimates.

"It was enough to slap them on the face and wake them up but not enough to bankrupt the company," said juror Robert Wold.

The punitive damages awarded Thursday are on top of $1.1 million in compensatory damages ordered by the 3rd District Court jury on Wednesday.

Price's former partners said they would ask Judge Frank Noel to award attorneys fees that could approach $500,000.

It was not immediately clear whether Price would appeal the judgment.

Neither Price, executives of his Fairfax Realty Inc., nor their attorneys returned telephone messages Thursday.

The Salt Lake developer is rumored to be in the running for an ambassadorship in the Bush administration, to which he has made generous campaign contributions. Price and his wife, Marcia, last year donated $471,550 to the national Republican Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Price, a former Republican national committeeman, was Bush's 2000 Utah Finance chairman.

Whether the hefty judgment could hurt Price's chances of landing a presidential appointment is anyone's guess, said Scott Simpson, state Republican executive director.

"Some of this is part of doing business. People in real estate are suing other people all the time," said Simpson. "I am sure there are ambassadors for our country who have suffered greater losses in our litigious society."

Jurors unanimously concluded that Price's privately held company, with "wanton and reckless" disregard, violated its fiduciary duty and contractual agreements with Armand L. Smith and his ex-wife, Virginia Smith.

Jury members interviewed after the case said the most persuasive evidence was a 1994 letter from Fairfax to the Smiths offering them stock worth just $6,160 for their 15 percent interest in the North Plains Mall in Clovis, N.M., valued at between $14 million and $16 million.

Jurors said Price's testimony — punctuated by dozens of denials of recollection or knowledge about the business details — was incredible.

"You take a man that is over a corporation as large as his is and is worth as much money as he is and he says "I don't know" 19 times? I didn't find him believable," said one juror, who asked not to be identified. "That hurt him."

Another juror felt Price was evasive.

Among topics on which Price claimed ignorance were tax returns — signed by him — that showed he took $1.5 million in tax losses from the New Mexico mall while assigning $456,000 in paper profits to the Smiths.

Defense attorney Reed Martineau insisted that Price and his company executives were scrupulously fair to the Smiths. "They were treated better than their partners," Martineau said. "(Price) bent over backward to assure the interests of the partners have been maintained."