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Party-Goers Win $15.9 Million in Suit Over Melee


A civil court jury Monday ordered financially beleaguered Los Angeles County to pay a record $15.9 million in damages to 36 people who jurors ruled were brutalized or falsely arrested by sheriff's deputies storming a 1989 bridal shower at the Cerritos home of a Samoan American family.

"You can't beat the truth and that's what prevailed in this case," said a tearful David Dole, who suffered head injuries and a broken hand in the incident, moments after the judgment was read. "Even though they [deputies] carry a badge, they still have to respect people. We're all human beings and there's a Constitution that they have to follow."

Dole, a 35-year-old father of four who was the most seriously injured of the party-goers, was awarded the top individual judgment--$3.8 million. Dole's father, Arthur, 67, who hosted the bridal shower, was awarded $1 million.

The judgment, which will be appealed, was the largest ever against the county Sheriff's Department, according to sheriff's officials. It was four times bigger than the $3.9-million settlement received from the city of Los Angeles by Rodney G. King, whose 1991 beating at the hands of Los Angeles police sparked national controversy and served as kindling for the 1992 riots.

The Dole family's lead attorney, Garo Mardirossian, said Monday's verdict also sent a clear message to the department to change its manner of dealing with residents--particularly those who are members of minority groups.

"Things have to change so citizens of this county feel safe," declared Mardirossian. "[Deputies] can't come out and beat the heck out of us . . . because we look a little different."

The Sheriff's Department did an internal investigation of the deputies' actions, but it resulted in no reprimands.

Paul Paquette, a contract lawyer defending the Sheriff's Department, said the judgment--and the jury's previous determination that two dozen deputies conspired to deprive party-goers of their civil rights--would be appealed.

"I'm obviously disappointed at the conclusions reached by the jury," said Paquette, who argued the case before the racially mixed jury.

Sheriff Sherman Block had no immediate comment but the department issued a brief statement: "The Sheriff's Department is consulting its legal counsel regarding excessive damages awarded in this six-year-old matter, and our attorneys are considering filing a motion for a new trial."

Los Angeles County, facing dire cash-flow problems and a round of massive layoffs, has no insurance to take care of sheriff's liability judgments. But it has set aside $90 million this year to pay off liability awards and settlements, and would not immediately have to fork out any cash in this case anyway because an appeal is planned, officials said.

"It doesn't blow a new hole in the county budget and precipitate further clinic closures," said Joel Bellman, a spokesman for County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "There's always litigation and expenses incurred in fighting litigation and in settling cases and paying out awards."

The overall county judgment fund would eventually have to be paid back by the Sheriff's Department because of its involvement in the case. But some observers said the money might be charged in part to a Contract Cities Liability Trust Fund, since the incident occurred in Cerritos, which is among 41 cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department for its services.

"Oh my God! How are we going to pay it? I don't know," said Sal Reza, the county's trust fund administrator in the Risk Management Bureau.

Superior Court Judge Robert R. Devich ordered jurors to return Wednesday to begin hearing testimony in two final phases of the trial--to determine whether the Sheriff's Department has allowed incidents of police brutality to occur regularly and whether 25 deputies found liable in the case should be assessed individual punitive damages.

The trial, which began in early February, stemmed from a melee at a February, 1989, shower for Arthur Dole's daughter Melinda Dole Paopao.

Sheriff's deputies, saying they had received a call about party-goers fighting in the street with sticks and knives, responded in force. Family members and friends greeted them by hurling rocks and bottles, the deputies claimed.

But criminal charges were quickly dropped against most of the 34 Samoan Americans arrested in the incident. And after a criminal trial three years ago, a jury acquitted David Dole and two other party guests of charges that they rioted and assaulted the deputies.

Additional rioting and assault charges were then dropped against four remaining party-goers, including Emily (Mt. Fiji) Dole, a professional wrestler and a daughter of Arthur Dole.

In mid-June, jurors, who heard from more than 80 witnesses and repeatedly viewed a videotape of the tussle made by a neighbor, ruled that deputies used excessive force and made false arrests when they responded in droves wearing riot gear.

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