In civil rights case, county seeks to overturn $85 million verdict or seek new trial

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San Diego lawyers are seeking to clear a record $85 million jury award in a civil rights case or seek a new trial because the jury’s verdict was ‘incurably tainted with errors’ and the trial was riddled with decisions that hurt the county’s case.

These and other claims are detailed in two separate motions filed in federal court in San Diego earlier this month by county attorneys – the first steps in what will likely be a protracted fight to reduce or completely overturn the verdict. massive returned on March 15 in favor of the family of Lucky Phunsy.

A motion asks U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Huff to overturn the verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to support the jury’s finding. A second asks for a new trial or a reduction in the sum of money, arguing that there were a series of errors during the trial and that the money the jury agreed on was excessive.

Phounsy, 32, died after being hogtied, Tasered and restrained by San Diego Sheriff’s Department deputies at the home of a Santee relative on April 13, 2015. The county medical examiner concluded his death was the result of a long struggle with the deputies, combined with the effects of the drug ecstasy he had taken a few days before.

But the family’s lawyers not only disputed that finding, but argued that the deputies’ conduct caused him to choke to death. They pointed to actions such as binding Phunsy’s hands and ankles with maximum restraints, not monitoring his vital signs after doing so, and continuing to restrain him when a deputy forcibly held his head down while was in the ambulance.

The case was tried twice in federal court. In September, a jury is deadlocked and cannot decide. In a second trial held in March, after just a day of deliberation, the jury found the county liable and awarded Phunsy’s family $85 million.

This second trial was different from the first in several respects. Just before trial, attorneys for the family said the county acted improperly by not releasing key evidence, including a training video on how to enforce the restraints that all deputies must see. They also said the test results MPs must take after watching the video to determine how well they understood it were not provided.

Years earlier, at the outset of the case, defense attorneys had requested all of the training information on the maximum use of restraints. But just before the start of the second trial, another lawyer told them in an unrelated case that the training tape existed.

County attorneys also did not turn over the results of toxicology tests on Phunsy’s blood that they conducted between the first and second trials until halfway through the second trial. Tests showed that, other than minimal amounts of ecstasy, there were no other drugs in his system.

The revelations led US District Court Marilyn Huff to conclude that the county breached its legal duty – known as discovery – to turn over these documents. Throughout the trial, she told jurors about these violations, and she said that because of them, jurors may have been suspicious of the county’s version of events about deputies’ training and drug use. by Phounsy. These are two critical elements in the trial.

In motions for a new trial, county attorneys said those instructions hurt their case. They argued that when Huff told jurors four times about the violations, it was overkill and swung the case against the county.

“The Court elevated the trial above all others, communicating to the jury that a matter of discovery was more important than the burden of proof, the elements of the claims and all the others,” the county argued. .

It was one of many mistakes the county says Huff made that warrant a new trial. And the county also said the $85 million monetary award was excessive compared to jury awards in comparable cases.

In federal courts, judges have the power to reduce the amount of damages awarded to a plaintiff by a jury, known as remittitur. The plaintiff can accept the reduced amount or opt for a new lawsuit for damages.

In this case, the county is either asking for a new trial or, at a minimum, for Huff to reduce the jury’s sentence, saying she was “detached from reason.”

A table included in the motion lists 13 other cases of death while in law enforcement custody that have been litigated in federal courts in California and where juries have awarded monetary awards. Three ended with awards over $10 million, and the largest of them was $17 million. The county argues the $85 million award was 15 times higher than the average verdict in comparable cases.

Phunsy’s attorneys have yet to file arguments against the county’s motions, which are due May 9. In a statement, attorneys Mark Fleming and Timothy Scott said the county continues to shirk responsibility for Phunsy’s death.

“The repeated arguments raised by the county have already been repeatedly dismissed by Judge Huff and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Scott said in the statement. Fleming said the attempt to reduce the prize money disrespects “both the value of Lucky’s life and the enormity of his loss to his family, as well as the hard work and scrutiny attention of the jury”.

Huff has set a date for a hearing on the motions for June 13.

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