A jury Thursday ordered Bank of America to pay $2 million in punitive damages to a Sherman Oaks woman who said she lost currency, diamonds and other valuables when her safe deposit box was drilled open after her branch closed, bringing her total award to $4.5 million.
Lianna Saribekyan sued BofA in June 2014, alleging that she never received notice that the Universal City branch where she rented a large safe deposit box in September 2012 would be closing and that she needed to remove all the box’s contents by June 7, 2013.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury concluded Wednesday that BofA was liable for breach-of-contract and theft and awarded Saribekyan $2.5 million in compensatory damages.
The panel also found that bank employees acted with malice, oppression or fraud, triggering a second phase of trial to determine whether Saribekyan should be awarded punitive damages.
The jury deliberated for nearly a day before reaching its verdict on punitive damages.
Saribekyan said outside the courtroom that she was grateful to the jury and to her attorneys. Asked if she would rent a safe deposit box in the future, she replied, “Never again.”
Saribekyan said she and her husband, Agassi Halajyan, lost valuables they jointly owned and he also had some sentimental items from his family in the box that he likely will never see again.
During the first phase of the trial, Saribekyan’s lawyer, Richard Foster, recommended the couple be awarded more than $7 million in compensatory damages. In his closing argument urging the panel to award punitive damages, he said BofA’s worth is about $1.6 trillion and its net assets are about $206 billion.
“They know exactly what happened to (Saribekyan’s) property,” Foster said. “You have to take the steps to deter this type of conduct.”
Foster said the bank employees did not videotape the drilling of his client’s box because that would have proved she was telling the truth about its contents.
BofA lawyers said Saribekyan was sent four notices and did not respond to any of them. Bank attorney Mark Wraight said more than 200 other boxes also were drilled open, but none of the renters complained about lost items.
Saribekyan, 34, said she went to the Universal City branch on June 27, 2013, to get some jewelry she and her husband had put in the box. She said she intended to wear the pieces to a wedding, but was told by the bank staff that her box was drilled open and the contents sent to a BofA storage facility on the East Coast.
Halajyan, 43, testified that when he arrived at the branch after receiving a call from his wife, the manager initially denied him a copy of the inventory sheet the bank had made of the contents allegedly in the couple’s box when it was drilled open.
He said he made calls and was able to get an executive at another BofA location to order the manager to turn over the inventory document, but that numerous items were missing.
Halajyan said he asked the manager why his double eagle gold coins were not listed.
“She said she was not an expert in gold,” he said.
Halajyan said the couple was assured by bank employees that everything they had in the box would be returned. He said they had to go through additional hoops before being notified that their items were available in mid- July 2013 at the BofA Studio City branch, only to find out that not all their valuables were there.
Among the items missing were 44 diamonds with a current value of about $4.5 million and numerous large and small denomination bills, all worth much more than their face value, he said.
Halajyan estimated that a dozen gold coins collectively worth more than $200,000 were missing, as was a $1 Confederate bill with a value of about $150.
Halajyan, who was not a plaintiff, said outside the courtroom on Wednesday that his father left behind significant wealth in Armenia to come to the U.S. so that he and his brother would not have to fight in an anticipated conflict between their native country and Azerbaijan. He said his family did not trust banks in Armenia because the country was under Soviet domination at the time.
Halajyan said he and his wife put the valuables in the BofA while they had remodeling work done on their home because construction workers typically have the tools to break into safes like the one in which they kept the items in the residence.
— City News Service
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