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$56.5 Million Jury Verdict in Indiana Jail Murder

On May 9, 2002, a federal jury in Indiana awarded $56.5 million dollars in damages to the estate of a jail detainee who was beaten to death by jail guards. This is believed to be the largest jury verdict in Indiana history. On October 5, 1997, Christopher Moreland, 30, was arrested on drunken driving charges. He was taken to the St. Joseph county jail in South Bend, Indiana, where he was placed in the jail's "drunk tank." Moreland was involved in a fight with another prisoner whereupon jail guard Paul Moffa entered the cell and sprayed Moreland with OC 10, (a brand of pepper spray which markets itself as being 10 times more potent than regular pepper spray), choked him, beat him and slammed his head against a concrete bench. The assault was recorded by video cameras in the jail cell.

Jail guards Erich Dieter and Michael Sawdon then took Moreland to a different part of the jail to shower off the pepper spray. Although jail procedure called for a cold shower to remove pepper spray, the guards put Moreland in a hot shower that amplified the effect of the pepper spray. Moreland was then placed in a restraint chair, sprayed with pepper spray some more, then later he was removed from the restraint chair, thrown into a shower where he struck his head and suffered a brain injury known as a subdural hematoma, which put him into a coma. Moreland was placed into the restraint chair again before being removed back to the drunk tank, comatose and naked, where he was found dead the next morning.

Dieter and Sawdon were acquitted of federal criminal charges for their role in Moreland's death. Moffa was never criminally charged. Moreland's family filed suit, claiming his murder by jail guards was a violation of his federal civil rights. At trial, a federal jury agreed and awarded Moreland's estate $56.5 million, finding that Dieter and Sawdon were directly responsible and liable for Moreland's death. The jury was unable to reach a verdict with regards to Moffa.

Moreland's estate was represented by famed Michigan trial attorney Geoffrey Fieger who has litigated numerous large verdict wrongful death cases, including those involving jail prisoners. Fieger claimed the jail guards tortured and killed Moreland and then covered up the murder with false reports and also denied him the medical attention that might have saved his life. Two other defendants in the case, Memorial Home Care and employee Connie Spicer, settled the claims against them in confidential settlements.

Prior to trial the district court had dismissed liability claims against the county. Martin Kus, counsel for the defendants, said that his clients were not indemnified by the county, therefore it was unlikely that Moreland's estate would collect much of the verdict awarded. Kus said his clients were "disappointed" by the verdict. See: Moreland v. Dieter, (ND IN), Case No. 3:99-CV-0607.

Sources: Indianapolis Star, National Law Journal

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Related legal case

Moreland v. Dieter