A former truck driver for Philabundance has seen a $500,000 malicious prosecution verdict in his favor upheld once more, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur in his case.
The justices declined to take up an appeal by the Philadelphia nonprofit, which allegedly held back certain information from law enforcement in a theft investigation, causing Manuel Burgos to spend over three months in jail for criminal charges that were later thrown out.
In a nonprecedential opinion filed in January, the Superior Court said the verdict against Philabundance, Chaundra Loesch, William Clark and Melanie Jumonville should be upheld. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius was also a defendant in the underlying case, but did not appeal the verdict. Affecting several of the questions raised was the court’s finding that omission of information would constitute false statements for the purpose of malicious prosecution.
“Upon review, we conclude that under Pennsylvania law, knowingly omitting material facts from information provided to a prosecuting officer may constitute instituting criminal proceedings, which would form the basis of liability for malicious prosecution,” Senior Judge William H. Platt wrote for the three-judge panel. “Thus, even if appellee had not introduced evidence of appellants’ false statements to police, the evidence that he presented regarding appellants’ knowing omission of material facts would have been sufficient to establish malicious prosecution.”
Burgos was accused of the theft in 2010, after a transportation clerk found that one of the nonprofit’s payment cards for truck fuel had been used for nearly $3,000 in unauthorized purchases. According to the Superior Court opinion, Philabundance’s investigation into the unauthorized charges “contained several notable lapses.” Philabundance did not review surveillance or alarm code data, and did not cross-reference gas purchases with mileage on the trucks, the opinion said.
Loesch, who conducted the investigation with fellow Philabundance employee Leonardo Bustos, told police that Burgos was assigned to the truck for that payment card. But they did not tell police that Burgos was not assigned to that particular truck on the days when the unauthorized charges were made. Loesch indicated that other drivers could access that truck, but did not name them to the detective, according to the opinion.
Burgos was arrested and charged with theft. Because he was unable to post bail, he spent more than three months in jail until the charges were dismissed. In December 2012, he filed his malicious prosecution complaint, which went to trial in November 2014. Ultimately, the jury returned a $500,000 verdict, including $375,000 in punitive damages.
In addition to arguing that they did not make false statements, the defendants argued that evidence showed probable cause to identify Burgos as the perpetrator of the thefts, and that there was no evidence of malice.
But the Superior Court said Burgos’ attorneys produced sufficient evidence to show that Philabundance presented false information. Detectives relied on that information when they arrested Burgos, Platt wrote, and because the investigation was inadequate, there was not probable cause.
Philabundance argued that Burgos should not have been allowed to present evidence that Bustos, the Philabundance employee who investigated the theft, had convictions on his record for stealing from previous employers. But the court disagreed, saying Bustos’ record was relevant because the malicious prosecution claim involved Bustos omitting material facts in the accusations against Burgos.
The trial court had not allowed evidence of Burgos’ prior arrests, and Philabundance argued that was an error. The trial court said Burgos’ record, on which the arrests occurred more than 10 years ago, were not admissible to show probable cause, and the Superior Court said the relevance of that information was minimal.
Philabundance filed a petition for allowance of appeal in April.
“What happened to this man was terrible,” said Barbara Axelrod of The Beasley Firm, who represented Burgos. “The fact that they rejected [the petition for allowance of appeal] in four months … when it’s as fast as that, it just says there’s nothing there.”
Gerald E. Burns of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, who represented Philabundance, did not return a call seeking comment.