A Sonoma County jury Friday awarded $12.2 million in punitive damages to members of a Petaluma ranching family who sold land to help create Tolay Lake Regional Park and later lost their share in a shady real estate deal.
The award to Edward and Cathleen Cardoza came on top of an earlier $6.1 million verdict against defendant David H. Reed, the owner of a Santa Rosa high-tech optical firm formerly known as RPM OptoElectronics Inc.
Jurors found Reed intentionally defrauded the Cardozas when he sold them commercial property on Corby Avenue with a promise to remain as one of several tenants. Instead, Reed moved out after three months, eliminating the Cardozas’ investment income and forcing them to sell the buildings at a loss.
The Cardozas’ lawyer, Joseph Piasta, told jurors that Reed misled the unsophisticated, elderly couple in order to steal their inheritance. He urged the panel to send a message that fraudulent business practices won’t be tolerated.
“Mr. Reed knew they were weak,” Piasta said in his closing argument. “Mr. Reed knew they were vulnerable. (Yet) he took advantage of them.”
Reed, 54, who represented himself after firing his lawyer Friday at the start of closing arguments, denied he ever tried to swindle the Cardozas. He called the allegations “fantasy” and said he always carried through with his promises.
“I’m going to tell you I’m not a crook,” he said to the jury. “I never stole anything.”
But jurors who sat through the four-month trial and the punitive damages phase disagreed. A Santa Rosa woman on the panel said Reed came off as insincere and egotistical from the beginning.
“He was unbelievable from the start,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Becky.
The Cardozas were part of a longtime ranching family who in 2005 sold about 1,700 acres near Lakeville Highway to the county’s Open Space District for $18 million.