Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Massive Verdict Against City of Los Angeles.

In a lawsuit brought by former LAPD police officers, the Ninth Circuit recently upheld a jury award of five million dollars a piece for the plaintiffs.  The case arose from a LAPD investigation and prosecution of three former police officers falsely implicated by a former LAPD officer.  The criminal charges against the three officers resulted in acquittals and those officers subsequently brought suit against the district attorney, the City of Los Angeles, and the former Chief of Police for violations of their constitutional civil rights.  After a trial lasting several weeks, a jury awarded the officers $5,000,001 each.  When the Court refused to set aside the jury's verdict, the City appealed to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The City's argument on appeal was that the treatment of the officers was not the result of a "custom or practice" by was simply the result of the false allegations made by another officer.  (Absent a "custom or practice," the City could not be liable for any constitutional violations.)  The appellate court held that the jury reasonably could have concluded that Chief of Police's actions were "indicative of an official policy whereby the City impliedly or tacitly authorized, approved, or encouraged illegal conduct by its police officers." 

The City also challenged the size of the jury's verdict. The Court rejected the challenge, finding that "each officer testified about the adverse physical and emotional effects of the media attention and his loss of reputation."  Some of the officers developed high blood pressure and intestinal problems, began drinking frequently and heavily, became paranoid and suicidal, experienced heartburn, back and neck pain, and anxiety attacks, and one of the officers gained 100 pounds, was hospitalized for chest pains, and deveoped high blood pressure. The officers also testified as to the adverse effect the experience had on their personal and professional lives.  The Court found the officer's "testimony is substantial evidence from which the jury could find that the harm to each officer justified an identical damage award." 

This case again underscores the importance for municipalities to periodically review each department to determine whether any of the express or implied customs and practices of the department are in violation of the law since a city could be hit with a substantial financial burden in the event someone is wronged by such a custom or practice.  For more information see Harper v. City of Los Angeles, 533 F.3d 1010 (9th Cir. 2008); or the October 2008 Public Safety Labor News publication.

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