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California: Federal Judgment in Favor of Police Bars Subsequent State-Court Wrongful Death Action

In May 2009, the California Supreme Court held that a federal-court judgment in favor of the defendants on a civil rights claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which the plaintiffs sought damages for police use of deadly and (allegedly) constitutionally excessive force in pursuing a suspect, barred a subsequent state-court wrongful death action alleging the same facts as were alleged in federal court.

In January 2001, George Hernandez was shot and killed by City of Pomona police officers after a high-speed car chase (followed by a foot chase) occasioned by a traffic stop. Though Hernandez was unarmed, the officers fired at him in the mistaken belief that he had a gun and was shooting at one of their own.

In September 2001, Hernandez's parents and children filed a complaint in federal court, alleging that the officers had violated Hernandez's rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The jury found in favor of the defendants, and specifically that the officers' use of deadly force was not unreasonable under the totality of the circumstances.

Subsequently, the plaintiffs brought suit in state court, raising a wrongful death claim based on the same facts they had alleged in their federal complaint. The defendants argued that the suit was barred on the grounds of collateral estoppel (issue preclusion).

When the case made its way to the California Supreme Court, the justices there rejected plaintiffs' assertion that the standard of reasonableness applicable in a §1983 action based on excessive force was somehow different than the standard of reasonableness applicable in a negligence action under California law. The justices implicitly acknowledged that collateral estoppel would not apply where the evidence supported a claim that the killing was accidental, but emphasized that the plaintiffs made no such claim and that, in any event, the evidence would not support it. Accordingly, the Court ordered that judgment be entered in favor of the defendants. See: Hernandez v. City of Pomona, 46 Cal.4th 501 (2009).

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. City of Pomona