The parents of a murdered Little Rock pizza restaurant manager have been awarded $12.7 million, but about $914,000 is potentially the most that the couple can collect because of the way a Pulaski County jury assessed liability in the killing of Christian Ellis Hayes.
Hayes, 24, was shot through the heart in February 2013 during the robbery of the Sbarro restaurant at Park Plaza mall where he was an assistant manager.
A co-worker, Joshanta Thomas, who was told by the robbers that she would not be harmed, was shot eight times. She survived.
Thomas, who was 19, recognized the two robbers and identified them for police, and they were arrested about two hours after the shootings.
The two -- a new employee on his day off and a fired ex-worker -- had teamed up to rob and kill Hayes.
Questioned by police, both admitted being at the restaurant when Hayes was killed, but each blamed the other for the slaying.
Deonte Edison, the 21-year-old Little Rock man who shot Hayes in the back, had only recently started working at the eatery.
Edison is serving a life sentence after being convicted during a trial last year of capital murder, attempted capital murder and two counts of aggravated robbery. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld his conviction last week.
Tristan Bryant, who worked at a neighboring mall restaurant after being fired from Sbarro, held a grudge against Hayes, blaming the older man for getting him fired for stealing.
Bryant, now 22, accepted a 40-year prison term in a deal in which he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, attempted capital murder and aggravated robbery. Bryant cannot appeal the sentence and will have to serve 28 years before he can qualify for parole.
Hayes' mother, Kimberly Marie Powell of New York, sued the killers, Sbarro, Park Plaza Mall CMBS LLC and its security provider, ERMC II LLC, for negligence just before the first anniversary of her son's death.
Park Plaza and ERMC II were considered a single entity at trial.
Attorney Mark Breeding, who represented the mall defendants, said Friday that "while our thoughts continue to go out to victims and their families, we're disappointed in the verdict against the mall and do plan to appeal.
"It's important to remember that this tragic incident occurred in the Sbarro space, perpetrated by two former Sbarro employees against their co-workers. Our top priority is to provide a comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable shopping experience, and we take security very seriously," Breeding said.
Before the trial, Sbarro was dismissed from the lawsuit after the restaurant company argued that Powell is legally required to seek compensation through the state Workers' Compensation Commission. Sbarro closed its mall store after the slaying.
On Thursday, after a 3½-day trial before Circuit Judge Mike Reif, jurors in a 9-3 verdict awarded $2,771,000 in compensatory damages to Powell.
Jurors also divided liability for Hayes' death among the defendants. They ruled that the mall companies are responsible for 33 percent of the liability in the killing, making the companies' share of damages about $914,000.
The jury declined to impose punitive damages against the mall companies.
Jurors found Edison liable for 34 percent of the damages and Bryant for 33 percent.
They also imposed $10 million in punitive damages against the men, but as indigent prisoners, they do not have the ability to pay.
Edison and Bryant were moved from prison to sit through the trial's opening statements, but they declined to participate further.
Attorney Connie Grace with Gary Holt & Associates law firm represented Powell. She said the jury's findings that the corporate defendants shared almost equal liability with the killers was a significant victory.
The lawsuit alleged that security lapses at the mall included unlocked doors and unmonitored security systems, plus inadequately trained guards, she said.
Bryant should have been banned from the mall two weeks before the slaying, when he was fired over the theft allegations, Grace said.
She said the law allows for plaintiffs to petition the court to make the mall companies pay up to 10 percent of the judgment against Bryant and Edison if the plaintiffs cannot collect the money from them.
Powell and Hayes' father, Myron Hayes of Chicago, recalled for jurors their son's "nerdy" interests, like video games, comic books and playing clarinet, but they said people were drawn to him.
"He was just one of those people who stand out," Grace said.
Thomas is pursuing her own litigation against the restaurant, mall, Bryant and Edison.
In her lawsuit, filed in November 2014, Thomas, now 21, states that her wounds have left her scarred and permanently disabled. She also asserts negligence in mall security as part of her suit, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, before Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. No trial has been scheduled.
Metro on 10/31/2015
Print Headline: Award in mall slaying $12.7M