FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A federal jury has awarded $23.1 million to a black man who was shot and paralyzed by a Florida sheriff’s deputy who thought he was armed, but it could be years before the 22-year-old man might see any of the money — if ever.
The six-woman, two-man jury ruled Wednesday that Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Adams Lin violated the civil rights of Dontrell Stephens when he shot him in September 2013.
Under Florida law, the Legislature has to approve any lawsuit payment exceeding $200,000 against a government agency.
In the past, legislators have been reluctant to do that, even in non-controversial cases.
In one case, it took about three years for the Legislature to approve a $3.5 million settlement for a Jacksonville teenager paralyzed when a large branch from a city-owned tree broke off and hit him in the head. That city had admitted fault. In another case, it took more than four years for the Legislature to approve a $10.7 million settlement for a teenager left permanently disabled when a speeding sheriff’s deputy plowed into her car. A jury had awarded her $30 million.
Jack Scarola, Stephens’ lead attorney, said lawmakers “would not be fulfilling their sworn obligation” if they failed to approve Stephens’ payment. He said they would be overriding a jury that heard all the evidence and found a “major injustice” had been done to Stephens, condemning him to a life of poverty and suffering.
Lin, who had stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic, testified that he shot Stephens four times because he reached for his waistband with his left hand and then flashed a dark object he thought was a small handgun. Stephens testified that he was raising his hands when Lin, who is Asian-American, opened fire for no reason. Video from the dashboard camera in Lin’s patrol car showed Stephens’ left hand was empty and a cellphone was in his right hand.
An appeal is expected and Lin’s attorneys could ask Magistrate Judge Barry S. Seltzer to reduce the damages. The jury apparently rejected Lin’s claim that he had made an “objectively reasonable mistake” when he shot Stephens. Jurors declined comment as they left the courthouse Wednesday as did Lin and his attorneys.
Lin sat stoically for the verdict. Stephens wept as he was wheeled into the courtroom minutes later. He declined comment.
Scarola said the verdict is a victory not only for his client but for law enforcement officers who have been unfairly stigmatized by unjustified violence against young black men by a small minority of their colleagues. He said the verdict will help restore faith in the justice system among the African-American community.
“This will help good police officers do their duty and be far more effective in their communities,” Scarola said.
Stephens’ attorneys had said from the beginning he would seek more than $5 million to cover his medical treatment and future care, but didn’t mention the amount they would seek for pain and suffering until closing arguments Wednesday. Attorney Darryl Lewis told jurors Stephens will have more than $6 million in medical and care expenses during his lifetime, and that he deserved at least $18 million for his pain and suffering.
The case was among several nationwide that have stirred debate about the deaths of unarmed black males following encounters with law enforcement officers.
Lin was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by sheriff’s investigators and local prosecutors and was later promoted to sergeant.
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