SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) - A San Diego jury Wednesday awarded more than $5 million in damages to the mother of a woman who authorities said committed suicide by hanging herself at a Coronado mansion in 2011, determining that the brother of her boyfriend was liable for her death.
Rebecca Zahau, 32, was found dead two days after her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai's 6-year-old son, Max, fell from a second-story landing at the Spreckels mansion. The boy died five days later.
Zahau's mother, Pari Zahau, and older sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, rejected the suicide finding and filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 against Shacknai's brother, Adam, claiming the defendant confronted and battered Zahau the day after his nephew fell.
Raw Video: Verdict reached in Zahau wrongful death civil case:
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Keith Greer, alleged that Adam Shacknai delivered four blows to the head of Zahau, rendering her partially or fully unconscious.
Greer also claimed the defendant sexually assaulted Zahau, tied her hands and feet, put a noose around her neck and threw her body off a second-story balcony. Greer said a phrase scrawled on a bedroom door with black paint that read "She saved him, can he save her," was written by Adam Shacknai.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors found that he touched and battered Zahau before her death with the intent to harm her.
As the decisions were read in the courtroom, Mary Zahau-Loehner could be heard crying and Adam Shacknai did not seemingly react.
Wednesday's post-verdict Zahau family news conference with Doug Loehner, family attorney Keith Greer and Mary Zahau-Loehner:
Questions posed to the jury included:
"Did Adam Shacknai touch Rebecca Zahau before Rebecca Zahau's death with the intent to harm her?"
"Was Rebecca Zahau harmed before her death by Adam Shacknai's conduct?"
Each question posed in the lawsuit came back with a "yes" answer from the jury.
Zahau-Loehner and the Zahau family's attorney Keith Greer could both be seen crying in the courtroom and Greer gave a thumbs-up signal to someone behind him.
Jurors awarded Pari Zahau more than $5 million for loss of comfort and companionship and loss of money that the victim would have given to support her mother.
During deliberations, the jury was asked to assess the economic damages to Pari Zahau as a result of Rebecca's death.
The jury forms stated they would award the following amounts of money:
For past financial support that Rebecca Zahau would have contributed to Pari Zahau: $35,000.
For future financial support that Rebecca Zahau would have contributed to Pari Zahau: $132,000
The next forms read stated that Pari Zahau's non-economic damages were:
The loss of Rebecca Zahau's love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, affection, society and moral support from July 13, 2011 to the present.
For that, they awarded Pari Zahau $3 million.
And that for the same losses from the present day forward they awarded $2 million.
The jury was then asked to affirm the verdicts as read and the group could be heard saying, "yes."
Greer said a second phase of trial in which the jury would consider punitive damages might not be necessary.
The attorney called on the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to re-open its investigation into Zahau's death.
"We know that Rebecca did not commit suicide," Greer said outside court. "We knew right away." Greer said the civil trial was a way to get the truth in front of the public.
"It's not about money," he said. "It's never been about the money."
Zahau-Loehner told reporters she was in "shock" upon hearing the verdict.
"For seven years, we had to fight to prove she didn't commit suicide," Zahau-Loehner said. "My sister was brutally murdered."
Zahau-Loehner said she is holding out hope that someday Adam Shacknai, who's now 54, will be criminally charged in the case.
The defendant testified that he had nothing to do with Zahau's death. He said he was staying in the guest house at his brother's mansion the night of July 12, 2011, after traveling to San Diego from his home in Memphis to be with his brother after Max's accident.
Adam Shacknai said he emerged from his room early the next morning and saw Zahau's nude body hanging from the balcony. He said he called 911, cut Zahau down and tried to give her CPR, then called his brother to tell him his girlfriend was dead.
Jonah Shacknai - a pharmaceuticals tycoon from Arizona - testified during the six-week trial that it was "inconceivable" that his younger brother had anything to do with Zahau's death.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department sent News 8 the following statement following the verdict and referred interested parties to this link.
We completed a comprehensive and professional investigation and stand behind it. We have no further comment about this civil lawsuit.
The department also issued the following statement Wednesday evening:
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department is aware of the recent verdict in the Rebecca Zahau wrongful death civil suit. We have cooperated with all parties on the presentation of evidence and testimony during the trial. Our thoughts are with the Zahau Family as they relive the tragic death of their daughter and sister, Rebecca. In regards to the criminal investigation, the Sheriff's Department stands by the findings of the Medical Examiner's Office and our investigators. These findings were supported by forensic evidence and medical examinations. We are always open to reviewing any evidence that could impact our conclusions. Additionally, we are also willing to meet with the Zahau Family to look at any new evidence that came out of the civil trial.
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