Former Big Island Toyota exec ruling overturned

The state Intermediate Court of Appeals has overturned a civil judgment of more than $1.4 million against a former Big Island Toyota executive, ruling that the trial judge should have recused himself from the case.

The opinion dated Wednesday states that Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara should have disqualified himself from the Big Island Toyota vs. Victor D. Trevino Jr. civil trial because of his prior personal and legal association with Ivan Nakano, a former Big Island Toyota employee who was a witness for Big Island Toyota at the trial.

The auto dealership and its parent company, David S. De Luz Sr. Enterprises, claimed Trevino stole from the company and breached his fiduciary duty and his employment contract to his benefit, and left the company’s books in shambles.

Hara, a high school classmate of Nakano, was a practicing attorney in 2003 when Nakano’s employment was terminated by the dealership and Nakano requested that Hara examine his severance agreement.

According to the ICA ruling, Hara held a conference with the parties Jan. 10, 2012, after opening statements at trial, to disclose his relationship with Nakano, who was once Trevino’s boss.

Trevino’s attorney, Kris LaGuire, made a motion for Hara to recuse himself based on an alleged personal bias or prejudice or knowledge of facts in dispute in the proceeding.

Big Island Toyota’s counsel, Paul Saito, argued that “Nakano’s role in the … litigation was so limited that there would be no danger of prejudice to Trevino” by Hara hearing the case, the opinion states.

Hara denied the motion, ruling that it had not been filed in a timely manner.

ICA’s ruling remands the case back to the 3rd Circuit. If Big Island Toyota and owner David De Luz Sr. elect to proceed with another trial, it likely won’t be in Hilo because the only other circuit judge in Hilo, Greg Nakamura, recused himself from the case because his father was a longtime Big Island Toyota employee.

There are two 3rd Circuit judges in Kona, Ronald Ibarra and Elizabeth Strance, the latter of whom heard and denied a written motion by LaGuire, requesting Hara be removed from the case.

Strance held a hearing on Trevino’s motion for recusal Jan. 20, 2012, with LaGuire stating that the motion was “based on a claim that Judge Hara had personal knowledge of the facts that were in dispute in the proceeding, or alternatively, that he had a personal bias or prejudice against Trevino,” the opinion states.

Trevino said he feels “some vindication” and the appellate court ruling gives him “a fair and decent shot” to present his own case.

“I felt that Judge Hara, specifically, was not in a position to be unbiased because he was a childhood friend and attorney and represented one of the key witnesses for the plaintiff. And I felt that definitely impacted the case,” he said.

The opinion noted that Trevino “had negotiated Nakano’s ‘contentious’ termination package” and LaGuire told Strance that Nakano “believed that he was being treated poorly and unfairly” and had consulted with Hara, who was then a practicing attorney.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.