Mid-Year Jury Verdict Round-Up: Top 5 Civil Rights Cases

During the first part of 2014, the attorney editors on the LexisNexis Jury Verdict team covered several notable civil rights settlements and verdicts from across the country. This informal list of top five cases captured our attention, so we thought you might like to hear about them. They include three wrongful conviction and imprisonment cases, as well as an excessive force case and a case involving an extremely invasive body cavity search. Each of these cases netted the plaintiffs (and cost the taxpayers and/or insurers) over a million dollars.

If you are interested in submitting one of your own notable verdicts, we’d be happy to include a report in our database. You can just send us an email at this address: juryverdictsubmissions@lexisnexis.com. In the meantime, please check out the highlighted cases below.

1)    In re McRay, Richardson, Santana, Wise and Sallaam Litigation, 2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 5068

According to a June 19 Law360 article, New York City has agreed to pay a total of $40,000,000 to five men who were adolescents when they were charged with, and later convicted of, crimes relating to the rape and death of a Central Park jogger. Four of the plaintiffs served several years in prison, and the fifth served several months. Their convictions were vacated long after they had been released from prison when the true perpetrator confessed and had his guilt confirmed through DNA testing and a review of the evidence. 

In 2003, plaintiffs filed separate civil rights suits in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

2)    James Harden v. Illinois State Police Officer Tasso J. Kachiroubas, et al. 2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 5577

In a markedly similar case, the State of Illinois paid a reported $40,000,000 to five men who were also wrongfully convicted as teenagers and served prison time as a result. Here, plaintiff James Harden was sentenced to serve 120 years in connection with the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Dixon, Illinois. Harden alleged that police had acted in concert to manufacture false evidence to implicate him and the other boys, including coerced false confessions. They were all later exonerated due to DNA evidence exculpating them. Harden's sentence was vacated and he was granted a certificate of innocence on April 17, 2012. Shortly thereafter, Harden filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. 

On June 24, Chicago news sources indicated that the State had reached a settlement with the five plaintiffs. According to the articles, the claims against the Village of Dixon had not settled, and there was no indication how the $ 40 million award would be divided between the plaintiffs. 

3)    Frank Sterling v. Monroe County, et al.  2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 3818

In May, Monroe County in New York reportedly agreed to pay $8,625,000 to settle a civil rights suit brought by Frank Sterling after he served nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Sterling's counsel, Nick Brustin, reportedly stated that the settlement was one of the largest he has seen outside of a major urban area. 

Through the complaint, Sterling alleged that employees of the Monroe County Sheriff had investigated the actual perpetrator of the crime, but that they failed to complete the investigation and ultimately targeted Sterling. He maintained that law enforcement officials then deliberately fabricated inculpatory evidence, suppressed exculpatory evidence, and, after a twelve-hour marathon interrogation that went unrecorded, coerced and manipulated Sterling into giving a false confession. 

Sterling’s civil rights suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. Through the amended complaint, Sterling asserted federal claims for malicious prosecution, deprivation of liberty, conspiracy and other constitutional claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. In addition, he asserted claims under New York state law for malicious prosecution, emotional distress, and negligence. 

4)    William H. Howard v. County of Riverside, Armando Munoz, Stanley Sniff, Jr., Randall Wedertz, and Does 2 to 4 and 6 to 10, 2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 4814

On June 11, a California federal jury awarded $7,810,000 to a man shot in the face by a Riverside County Deputy. The incident occurred in April 2011 when William H. Howard was the subject of a law enforcement foot chase. Howard stated that when he ran into a storage shed, he was shot without justification by Officer Munoz. According to news reports, Howard was unarmed. As a result of the shooting, Howard sustained serious physical and mental injuries, including traumatic brain injury, paralysis of the left side of his body, severe scarring on his face and head, and a speech impediment. He was hospitalized from April 7, 2011 through October of 2012. According to news reports, he was wanted on a felony warrant at the time of the chase.

In May of 2012, Howard filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the County, Munoz, and Does 1 to 10. Stanley Sniff, Jr. and Randall Wedertz were later added as defendants. Howard asserted claims for excessive use of force and for municipal and supervisory liability pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 as well as state law claims for negligence and battery. On June 3, 2014, a jury trial began before Judge Virginia A. Phillips. On June 11, 2014, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Howard. The jury found that Munoz used excessive force and committed battery. The award included $3 Million for pain and suffering.

5)    Jane Doe v. The El Paso County Hospital District, et al. 2014 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 5576 

On July 7, Jane Doe reached a $1,100,000 settlement in her civil rights action against the El Paso County Hospital District, the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC), a number of physicians and hospital board members, and certain officials and officers of the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Doe’s action arose out of multiple invasive body cavity searches that she was subjected to in December of 2012 based on the orders of CBP agents. 

While Doe attempted to return to the United States from Mexico at the Cordova Bridge in El Paso, TX, she was singled out by a drug-sniffing dog and taken into custody under suspicion of transporting drugs. She was taken in handcuffs to University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC).  Over six hours, Doe was subjected to visual and manual examination of her body cavities, had a bowel movement observed, underwent an x-ray, and was subjected to invasive vaginal and anal examinations, none of which showed any presence of drugs. After a CT scan also revealed no drugs were present, Doe was released without charge. CBP never received a warrant for the searches, nor did UMC request one to conduct the testing, despite UMC policy requiring a search warrant or patient request for bodily invasion. UMC subsequently billed Doe over $ 5,000.00 for the tests performed.

Doe filed her complaint in December of 2013 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Her settlement agreement resolved her claims against the District, UMC, and its employees. The El Paso County Hospital District also agreed to review and potentially revise internal policies regarding law enforcement searches. The settlement did not include the claims against the CBP agents named in the suit. 

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