Wrongful Death by Police: Should You Take a Settlement?

police force in riot gear

For at least the last few years, anyone tuned into national news is aware of what seems a wave of police brutality and cases of wrongful death by police shooting working through the newspapers and courts. The Los Angeles Police Department reported that 2017 was a record year for settlement payments, at nearly $81 million (not all of which was paid to police wrongful death settlements).

And when many of the cases in the news against law enforcement are alleging a symptom of some systemic issue, such as racism, or police targeting of specific groups of the public, it’s becoming more socially important to report the miscarriage of justice. It’s happening often enough that police homicides and shootings are not just a “one bad egg” problem, or an accident that just seems to happen a lot…in one area. In one police department.

Therefore, in winning a case that tragically reveals some organizational malfunction, many victims consider admission of guilt the desired outcome. Most government entities and corporations do all they can to avoid that, including offering a generous settlement.

But settlements may not entirely satisfy a client’s desire to punish offenders, to enact change to some systemic problem, or even to receive an acknowledgment of guilt from the guilty party, along with an apology. If you know someone who has died at the hands of law enforcement, it is important to talk to an experienced attorney to see if there is a wrongful death case, and what your options are – settlement or taking it to court.

Sacramento Police Shooting

The Mann family is a local example of how victims of wrongful death by police officer have varied reasons for filing a lawsuit. After Joseph Mann was shot 14 times by two police officers, his father brought a case against the city of Sacramento and was eventually awarded a settlement of $719,000. This is a reasonable settlement, considering that an investigation by the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office determined that the officers had acted lawfully. Mr. Mann was brandishing a knife — albeit a small pocket knife — and making threats on a public street.

closeup of police patrolman's body camera equipped to further discourage wrongful death by police

The officers had a duty to protect the public and defend themselves, but there was another factor in the situation. Dash-cam footage shows that they first made two attempts to hit Mr. Mann with their car before chasing him down and showering him with bullets — a heartless and unnecessarily brutal manner of containing the potential danger.

The settlement for wrongful death by police shooting was also successful in that it triggered Sacramento police reform in a number of ways:

  • Mandating release of video in officer-involved shootings and some other incidents within 30 days of an encounter.
  • Moving the Office of Public Safety Accountability to the City Council’s purview to give it greater autonomy in conducting civilian investigations.
  • Purchase of body cameras for officers, and training in their proper use.
  • Purchase of “less lethal” equipment for all patrol officers, including pepper ball guns, beanbag shotgun rounds and 40 millimeter launchers (which fire a less-lethal ammunition).
  • Officer training on how to de-escalate tense situations using the new equipment.
  • Update to Use of Force and Discharge of Firearms policies to require officers to use lethal force only as a last resort.

Mr. Mann’s siblings had another goal in mind: holding the individual officers accountable for their actions. Robert Mann, Joseph Mann’s younger brother, told the Sacramento Bee,

From the very beginning it was never a money issue. It was about transparency and accountability.

Robert Mann and his four siblings “were unhappy with the outcome of their father’s suit because they wanted it to include public tracking of police reforms in Sacramento and information on whether the two officers who fired shots had been disciplined by the department,” as reported in the Sacramento Bee.

Suing a Police Force is Tricky

While cell phone video evidence of police shootings, misconduct and negligence gathers daily, even videos sometimes don’t provide a preponderance of evidence to one’s case, and a surprising number of wrongful death claims against the police side with authority (the police).

3 police officer vehicles parked with police officers preparing for a shootout

Juries sympathize with a police officer’s work for society, and decline to indict officers for deaths reported to have happened quickly, with poor light — often at night, and something in one’s hand is mistaken to be a weapon. Furthermore, juries also tend to lean toward the police should the client have a criminal record.

A San Francisco Police Shooting Case

In the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, in 2014, police responded to a report of a “man with a gun.” As four police officers approached 28-year-old Alejandro “Alex” Nieto in a city park, he is reported to have turned to face the officers with a taser stun gun in his hand. All the officers fired on Mr. Nieto striking him 59 times. The jury sided with the police department. It was reported Mr. Nieto had some gang affiliations.

Despite apparent bias as that, there are still other cases where there is a preponderance of evidence against the state, or police, and at the 11th hour the defendants will settle for some of the headline dollar amounts. But significantly, there is often some “fine print” attached. Unless forced to, the state nearly always refuses to admit guilt, basically considering a settlement a hush fund compensation for losses and damages.

several police officers looking at crime scene

Last year in Ohio, in a Federal case involving the death of 12 year old boy, the City of Cleveland settled with the family for $6 million. But part of the deal is that none of the law enforcement individuals involved in the case admit any guilt.

This is a juncture in a wrongful death case, especially against an organization. It’s a decision that clients strive to be burdened with: whether to proceed to trial and possibly lose, or accept a settlement.

By settling, a client is forfeiting their day in court, when they are perhaps vindicated in their argument and possibly spur departmental policy changes, so the issue may not happen again. By settling, a client may also not be able to hold guilty individuals accountable, or receive an apology for the wrong.

There are arguments both ways.

A Northern California Wrongful Death Case

A jury awarded for the family of a 42-year-old homeless man, Darren Borges, who died while in police custody, of a methamphetamine overdose. He was thought to be intoxicated and placed in a solitary “drunk tank” cell. A nurse did look in on him at some point through a cell window and saw “no reason for alarm,” but about an hour later he was discovered to be unresponsive and was later pronounced dead.

The jury did agree with the Borges family, who felt that the officers involved did not act with any malice, but were instead insufficiently trained to be aware that Darren was overdosing. The family stated his death was likely “unpreventable” after ingesting a lethal dose of drugs, but all the same contend that by taking Mr. Borges into custody, the police department became responsible for his safety, and so the system was negligent to not respond to his duress and direct him to medical services.

The verdict awarded the Borges family $2.5 million in damages, but after 30 months, the decision is only a first step, with a likely “flurry of post-trial motions” to follow. So this isn’t over for the family. The state had not otherwise offered a settlement to the family in this case.

Hope for Families of Wrongful Death by Police Officer

If you have a wrongful death claim, you too deserve fair and reasonable compensation. Don’t hesitate to contact our office for a free case evaluation.

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