CITY NEWS SERVICE
Movie producer Jon Peters was ordered by a Los Angeles jury Friday to pay more than $3 million to a former personal assistant, whom the panel determined was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.
The nine-woman, three-man jury awarded Shelly Morita $822,000 in compensatory damages and found that Peters acted with malice, which triggered an immediate second phase of trial in which the same panel awarded her $2.5 million.
Most of the compensatory award, $750,000, was for emotional distress and the rest for past lost wages.
Unlike the first part of the trial, the punitive damages portion did not include any testimony, only arguments from the lawyers.
Morita’s attorney, Philip Kaufler, said Peters engaged in conduct “that should never be tolerated.”
The producer’s lawyer, John Gatti, said he acknowledged and respected the first phase verdict, but noted that Morita has been employed for several years in her current job as an executive for a law firm — earning more than $100,000 annually.
“Ms. Morita has gone on with her life,” Gatti said.
Peters was not present for the verdicts.
Morita said she was pleased with the outcome of the case after nearly five years of litigation.
“Even if they gave me a dollar, the world knows what he did was wrong,” she said.
Morita, a 44-year-old single mom with an 8-year-old daughter, said she believes other women who have been sexually harassed should also come forward despite the stress of going through a lawsuit and a trial.
She wept when she was hugged by the jury forewoman as the panel departed the courtroom.
Peters, 66, repeatedly denied any wrongdoing when he testified at the trial, which began Aug. 2. His attorney said the verdicts will be appealed.
In his closing argument in the trial’s first phase, Kaufler urged the jury to conclude Peters’ actions were malicious and that he should be deterred from committing them again.
“If he doesn’t get punished, he’ll do this again. He’ll think he can get away with it,” Kaufler said.
He said Morita failed to find employment as a personal assistant to a celebrity, despite 23 years of experience, because of Peters’ pull in Hollywood.
“She couldn’t get a job because of his power in the industry,” Kaufler said, telling jurors that his client had to settle for the law firm job.
But Gatti said Morita signed a release of all claims against Peters in January 2006. He also said she had no witnesses to prove her sexual harassment claims.
Morita sued Peters and his company, J.P. Organization Inc., in December 2006. She claimed Peters inappropriately touched her at his Malibu home during portions of the time she worked from him beginning in February 2005 and ending a year later when she quit.
She also alleged he crawled into bed with her in the two-bedroom suite of their Australia hotel and blew marijuana smoke in her face in a car while both were in that country for a week in July 2005 during filming of “Superman Returns.”
She additionally claimed Peters exposed himself to her and her daughter, then 2, in an outdoor restroom of his Santa Barbara ranch in December 2005.
Morita testified that before working for Peters, she was a personal assistant for various celebrities, including Jennifer Aniston, Nicollette Sheridan, Pamela Anderson, Marisa Tomei, Justine Bateman and Jennifer Connelly.