$4.5 million awarded to California family in wrongful death suit

Posted on in Wrongful Death

Often in this blog we talk about the difficulty of losing a loved one in a traffic crash or other accident. But imagine how you would feel if a family member were killed not in a car accident, but at the hands of those hired to serve and protect. That was the plight of a Kern County, California, family who was recently awarded $4.5 million in compensation for the beating death of their son by sheriff's deputies.

The family filed the civil lawsuit after a man with mental illness and drug addiction problems began acting irrationally one night in December 2010. Family members said his recovery had been going well up until that point, but his use of methamphetamines led him to begin making repeated frantic, nonsensical phone calls to 911. Deputies soon arrived at the home where the man lived with his parents, who later said law enforcement was justified in responding to the problem. But the situation got out of hand once they arrived.

Three deputies approached the man; another arrived later. They proceeded to shock the man 29 times with a Taser and used pepper spray inside the home, which caused some of the officers to be exposed to it -- a sign, perhaps, that the deputies weren't fully prepared to handle the situation. The incident ended when the man the deputies were trying to detain suffered a fatal heart attack.

The man's parents witnessed the assault by the officers, although they were told repeatedly to leave the home. The attorney representing the deputies in the civil suit said the parents' refusal to leave the home while their son was being handled contributed to theirs and their son's emotional distress. The attorney also said that the man was high on drugs and had been mistreating his parents that night. He called the deputies' forceful actions justified because they were responding to a very real physical threat.

But should that response have ended with the man's death? Why shock him with a Taser 29 times when there were four officers present? Even if the man was under the influence of drugs, he was also suffering from mental illness, and officers whose job it is to deal with public disturbances should be trained to know how to handle them.

The Sheriff's Office is considering an appeal of the case, whose damages it says are excessive. But it may be difficult to convince a judge that the parents who watched their son get assaulted repeatedly by deputies don't deserve a considerable amount of compensation.

Source: The Bakersfield Californian, "Family wins $4.5 million in wrongful death suit against county," Rebecca Kheel, Nov. 8, 2012

• Our firm handles a wide variety of wrongful death lawsuits and other personal injury issues. To learn more about our practice, visit our San Jose wrongful death page.

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