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Fullerton Police Can Be Sued Over Death, Court Says

Ruling allows woman to refile lawsuit alleging a cover-up after husband died in police custody.

October 13, 2002|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

An appeals court has ruled that Fullerton police can be sued for allegedly covering up key evidence when a combative man under the influence of cocaine died in their custody.

The California Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate District, did not find that police covered up the death of Max Leyza Garcia. Instead, judges reversed a trial court's decision that Garcia's widow, Rita Garcia, waited too long to sue, alleging a cover-up.

The decision means she can refile her lawsuit alleging that Fullerton police were responsible for her husband's death and that they covered up the fact that he was hogtied after his arrest.

Rita Garcia alleges that for almost two years police withheld information showing that her husband had been hogtied. She said in court papers that he died from asphyxiation when police placed him on his stomach in the back of a police cruiser with his arms handcuffed behind his back and a rope tied around his feet and secured to the handcuffs. An autopsy said Garcia's death resulted from "acute cocaine intoxication" Nov. 2, 1991, after he was arrested at a hotel where he was causing a disturbance. The report did not say Garcia had been hogtied.

The man had fought with officers, who restrained him and took him to Fullerton City Jail. When Garcia was removed from a police cruiser, officers found he was not breathing.

Police were cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation by the district attorney's office.

But Rita Garcia sued Chief Patrick E. McKinley, his predecessor, Philip Goehring, Sgt. Joseph Klein and the city in 1996, alleging police knew the hogtying led to Max Garcia's death, and they hid this from her.

Court documents show that she repeatedly asked police for records about her husband's arrest but that her requests were denied. It was not until she hired an attorney in 1993 that McKinley revealed that Max Garcia had been restrained by police. After further prodding, McKinley revealed in July 1993, that the man had been hogtied.

In 1999, a jury cleared police and the city of negligence in Garcia's death in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Rita Garcia. Police were also cleared of using excessive force. But before the trial, the judge had ruled she could not use the cover-up claim because it had not been filed in the time prescribed by law.

However, the appellate court ruled that Rita Garcia should have been allowed to use the cover-up argument in pursuing the wrongful death lawsuit because there is evidence that police kept details of her husband's arrest from her.

By law, she had to have filed a claim within six months of her husband's death. But her attorney, Donald W. Cook, said that because police failed to disclose crucial evidence about the arrest, she was forced to wait 20 months before filing.

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