Los Angeles City Hall, left, and LAPD headquarters. (Brian vander Brug / Los Angeles…)
A jury Friday ordered the city of Los Angeles to pay $5.7 million to a man who was shot and paralyzed by police, an award that exceeds by $1.2 million a proposed settlement that the City Council rejected earlier this year.
"If the city has to pay some more to show that we stood up and supported our police officers when they did nothing wrong then so be it," said City Council member Paul Krekorian, a vocal opponent to settling the case out of court. "It's money well spent."
The payout could increase even more if the judge orders the city to pay attorneys' fee for the man.
The jury's decision compensates 26-year-old Robert Contreras for injuries he suffered one night in September 2005, when several officers on patrol in South Los Angeles responded to a report of a nearby shooting. As they arrived, witnesses pointed to a white van speeding away and said people inside the vehicle had let off a volley of gunfire while driving by. After a brief pursuit, the three men inside the van jumped out and scattered.
Officer Mario Flores and Det. Julio Benavides, also a police officer at the time, chased Contreras into a dark driveway. When Contreras allegedly turned toward them with an object in his hand, the officers opened fire, hitting him multiple times in the side and back. Contreras had been holding a cellphone. The officers told investigators afterward they had seen a gun in Contreras' hand as he bolted, but an extensive search of the area turned up no weapon.
Contreras, who was left a near-quadriplegic with some use of his arms, was convicted in 2009 for his role in the drive-by shooting and sentenced to seven years in state prison. Released on parole last year, he filed a federal lawsuit against the city, charging that the officers used excessive force and violated his civil rights.
During the February trial, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson did not allow lawyers for the city to tell jurors several pieces of information, including the fact that Contreras had been convicted in the drive-by, that he was a known gang member, or that one of the other men in the van had told investigators that Contreras had gotten out of the vehicle armed with a gun, according to records obtained by The Times.
That jury unanimously found in favor of Contreras. Faced with a second trial to determine how much money the city would have to pay to cover Contreras' extensive medical care costs and the pain he suffered, lawyers for the city agreed with Contreras' attorneys to a $4.5-million settlement.
The notion of making a multimillionaire out of Contreras, however, did not sit well with members of the City Council. An internal LAPD inquiry had cleared the officers of wrongdoing and the proposed payout amounted essentially to an admission they had done something wrong, Krekorian and other council members said.
Despite warnings from city lawyers that a jury could award more than double the settlement amount, the council rejected the deal in an 8-4 vote.
The second trial, which ran for two days this week, was largely a fight over the amount and cost of the physical therapy, medical care and general assistance Contreras will need for the rest of his life. While medical experts put forth by Contreras' lawyer argued that he would need a round-the-clock attendant and expensive machinery to help him move, the city countered with its own experts who said far less was necessary.
Deputy City Atty. Craig Miller said Contreras had failed to work aggressively on his rehabilitation and would have more mobility and independence if he did so. The attempts by his attorney to portray him as a near-invalid were a "sympathy ploy," Miller told jurors.
Miller made his argument with Contreras seated before the jury in an elaborate wheelchair, his fingers curled with paralysis. "So many things we take for granted — to walk, to pick up a child, maybe to have a family," his attorney, Dale Galipo, said in his closing remarks to the jury. "You need to take all of that into consideration."
Galipo said he planned to ask the judge to order the city to pay his fees as well, which would raise the total judgment to about $2 million over the proposed settlement amount.
Galipo said that although he was pleased with the jury's decision, he had been hoping for more. "It's still a significant amount of money," he said. "We asked for more, but, remember, I would have settled this case for less."
Miller could not be reached immediately. Chief Deputy City Atty. Bill Carter said his office would appeal the decision unless instructed not to by the City Council.