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California: $2,005,000 Verdict for Wrongful Death Caused by Police Officers’ Excessive Force

After four days of trial and five hours of deliberations, on April 11, 2011, a federal jury found that defendant police officers had used excessive force against a mentally ill man, which caused his death. The jury awarded $2,005,000 in noneconomic damages.

Terry Nash was reported missing on February 28, 2009 by his mother, Sheryl Jackson, at the San Bernardino Police Department (SBPD) headquarters. The SBPD did not broadcast an APB or Be-on-the-Lookout bulletin, despite a statutory duty to do so due to Nash's untreated paranoid schizophrenia, which placed him "at-risk" under the Penal Code and the City's own policies.

The next day, March 1, 2009, eight SBPD officers encountered Nash in the park and tried to detain him either for a 5150 hold or to determine whether he was under the influence of drugs. The officers took Nash to the ground by force, Tasered him three times, used a lateral vascular neck restraint and/or chokehold on him, struck him five times in the face, handcuffed him, applied leg shackles around his ankles, applied a hobble restraint to bind his hands to his feet, and held him down in a face-down position with body weight on his back for at least five minutes.

Witnesses and officers testified that Nash and bystanders were yelling at the officers that Nash couldn't breathe and that the officers were killing him. Eventually, Nash lost consciousness and died. Paramedics had been summoned earlier, but when they arrived Nash had already been pulseless and not breathing for five minutes.

The police officers claimed they did not take steps to address Nash's obvious medical distress, such as removing the mechanical restraints, placing him in a position conducive to breathing or performing CPR, because they thought he might be on PCP and the drug could enter their body through skin contact. The parties presented expert testimony regarding restraint asphyxia (Ronald O'Halloran, M.D.) and excited delirium (Gary Vilke, M.D.).

The court held that the claim against the City for municipal liability based on a failure to train was mooted by the verdict against the City in phase one of the trial. Nash’s estate was represented by attorney Dale K. Galipo of Woodland Hills. See: Estate of Nash v. City of San Bernardino, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:09-cv-08671-RGK-FFM

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Related legal case

Estate of Nash v. City of San Bernardino