Posted on Monday, October 6 at 6:20pm | By Bob Egelko
When police fatally shoot someone without justification, California law allows the victims’ estates to recover damages for economic losses, but not for the pain the victim suffered before death. That limitation will no longer apply in federal courts in the state, as the result of an order Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court denied review of an appeal by the city of Los Angeles in a lawsuit by parents of a 21-year-old man who was shot to death by a Los Angeles policeman in 2008. A jury found the shooting unjustified and awarded the parents $700,000 for their own losses and $1 million for their son’s pain and suffering. A federal judge tossed out the $1 million award because of the California law, but a federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that the law contradicted the goal of federal law to compensate the victims of civil rights violations and to discourage future violations.
The city appealed, arguing that the California law was a valid restriction on damages. On Monday, the Supreme Court denied review of the case, without comment. That makes the appeals court decision binding on all federal courts in California.
The case involved Mohammad Usman, a young man who suffered from autism and, according to his family, often wandered away from their home in suburban Bellflower. One night in March 2008, two Los Angeles policemen saw him sleeping in front of an apartment buildiung, thought he might be a drug user, woke him and asked for identification. Usman handed over his I.D., but, according to Officer Joseph Cruz, he then lunged at Cruz with a knife. The officer shot him three times, and he died at the scene.
Accoding to other testimony, however, the knife found at the scene was a type typically carried by police, it bore no trace of Usman’s DNA, and the trajectory of the gunshots showed they were fired as Usman was collapsing rather than advancing toward Cruz. Usman’s parents also said the coroner’s office bungled a records search and took three weeks to locate them, by which time their son’s body had decayed and could not be buried, according to the customs of their Muslim religion.
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