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Tuesday, May 20, 2014


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Ninth Circuit Rules State’s Limit on Damages in Wrongful Death Suits Inapplicable to Federal Cases


From Staff and Wire Service Reports


California’s statute barring recovery of pre-death pain and suffering damages wrongful death cases cannot be applied to federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

“[A] prohibition against pre-death pain and suffering awards for a decedent’s estate has the perverse effect of making it more economically advantageous for a defendant to kill rather than injure his victim,” Judge William Fletcher wrote for the court in the case of Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, an autistic 21-year-old shot to death by a Los Angeles police officer in 2008.

Fletcher explained that damages in §1983 cases are measured according to state law, except to the extent they conflict with the fundamental policies underlying the federal statute. Code of Civil Procedure §377.34 is such a conflicting law, the jurist wrote, so it was error to strike a $1 million award to the decedent’s family.

The panel remanded to the district court to consider whether the award was excessive.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California jury heard testimony that Chaudry had been sleeping in the street when he was shot and killed by Officer Joseph Cruz. Cruz initially claimed that Usman cut him with a knife and that he had shot him in self-defense.

Usman’s family claimed that the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office was negligent in failing to notify them of the death for 21 days. They said that, by that time, the body had decayed to the point where it prevented them from burying their son in accordance with the religious customs of Islam, the family’s religion.

In addition to the city and county, the LAPD, and the coroner, Cruz and another officer were named as defendants.

Usman’s estate, his parents and his siblings, Usma and Mohammad Umar Chaudhry, filed the complaint. The Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network also sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the case.

Most of the allegations were dismissed before trial, but jury heard the excessive-force claim against Cruz, the assault-and-battery claim against the city, and the wrongful-death claim against Cruz and the city.

Jurors ultimately heard that Usman’s DNA was not on the knife that he had allegedly used to cut Cruz, and that the knife was a kind of “boot knife” popular with law enforcement. The plaintiffs also showed that Cruz had shot Usman while Usman was falling, not while he was coming at him with a knife as Cruz had claimed.

The jury awarded $700,000 to the Chaudhrys for their wrongful-death claim under state law, and $1 million to the estate for its excessive-force claim based on Usman’s pain and suffering.

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner later struck the $1 million award, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the state ban on pre-death pain and suffering violates § §1983. Fletcher, joined by Judges Milan D. Smith Jr. and Paul Watford, disagreed, citing decisions in three other circuits.

The plaintiffs’ attorney said the ruling is significant.

“The thing that comes out of today’s case is the rule of law,” attorney and University of Southern California law professor Olu Orange said. “Cases where civil rights violations result in death are now coverable for pre-death pain and suffering. That makes it more expensive for police to kill people, so hopefully there will be more training when it comes to use of force.”

Fletcher wrote: 

“Even in cases of slow death where pre-death economic damages might be available, § 377.34’s limitation will often be tantamount to a prohibition, for the victims of excessive police force are often low-paid or unemployed. The same is likely to be true for prisoners whose death is caused by the deliberate indifference of jail or prison officials in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

The judge cited a 2002 federal study reporting that 83.5 percent of prisoners had incomes of less than $2,000 per month before they were arrested.

The panel also reinstated the negligence claim against the county and coroner, and the parents’ substantive due process claim based on the loss of their son’s companionship, and said Klausner failed to adequately explain why he awarded the plaintiffs less than $75,000 in attorney fees, in comparison to their request for more than $1 million.

The coroner’s office allegedly thought that Usman’s address was the “Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood,” according to the court. Though investigator Joyce Kato later found several other addresses connected with the decedent’s name, including the correct one in Bellflower, she waited much longer to follow up.

“The Chaudhrys’ address, while not listed as current, was recent,” Fletcher wrote. “Had Kato not ‘overlooked’ the Chaudhrys’ address in late March, she would have sent a letter or run the address through Accurint, discovered the Chaudhrys’ identities, and then informed them of Usman’s death. The only reason the Chaudhrys were not informed in late March was that Kato focused on only one of the addresses listed on the DMV report and did not double-check her paperwork until twenty-one days later. Under those circumstances, a jury could reasonably find that the Coroner did not make a reasonable effort to locate Usman’s family.”

Attorneys who argued for the defendants in the Ninth Circuit were Blithe Smith Bock of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, Jules Solomon Zeman of Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP, and Alison McIlvaine Turner of  Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland LLP.

The case is Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 11-55820.


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