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Family wins $6.5-million verdict in water nozzle case

April 04, 2013|By Ruben Vives and Richard Winton
  • Long Beach police show off water device in shooting.
Long Beach police show off water device in shooting. (Los Angeles Times )

The family of a 35-year-old man shot to death by Long Beach police after they mistook a water hose nozzle he was holding for a handgun was awarded $6.5 million in damages by a federal jury Thursday.

After a day of deliberations, jurors found that two officers violated Doug Zerby’s constitutional rights, were negligent and acted with malice or reckless disregard for his life in the December 2010 fatal shooting outside a Belmont Shore apartment.

Zerby was shot by the two officers -- one with a shotgun and other with a handgun -- after they responded to the scene because someone reported seeing a man with a handgun. They found Zerby outside on an apartment stoop waving around what was later determined to be to a metal pistol grip water hose nozzle.

The Santa Ana jury awarded $3.5 million in damages to Zerby’s son, $1 million to his mother, Pam Amici, and $2 million to his father, Mark Zerby. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages and an agreement was reached for Officers Victor Ortiz and Jeffrey Shurtleff to be personally liable for $5,000 each, attorneys for the family said.

“I was pleased the jury found the police officers guilty of all the acts, but it won’t bring back my beautiful son,” said Pam Amici, Zerby’s mother and a 23-year teacher at Long Beach Poly High School. “We got the best result we could and I hope Long Beach does the right thing and now fires these officers.”

Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., said of the verdict: “It’s very disappointing. The officers were dispatched to a call about a man with a gun, they arrived and saw what they thought was a gun, they saw a man point a 'gun' at them, and the jury found they don’t have the right to defend themselves. That’s concerning not just in this case, but for police officers across the country. "

Long Beach officials did not return messages for comment.

Attorneys for the family  presented evidence at trial that the officers did not attempt to identify themselves to Zerby or order him to drop his weapon or even make him aware that they were there. They argued the evidence showed it was a case of contagious fire where one officer fired by mistake, prompting another officer to shoot based on the belief he was under fire.

By contrast, an attorney for the city argued that Shurtleff, a six-year veteran, and Ortiz, a 10-year veteran, opened fire because they believed that Zerby was about to shoot them with what they wrongly believed was a real handgun and they were standing unprotected.

 Dale Galipo, attorney for the child and mother, however, told jurors those officers were concealed before they delivered the deadly shots in the 5300 block of East Ocean Boulevard. Experts testified it was unlikely Zerby was standing up with his hands outstretched pointing the nozzle at police, as officers said, because he lacked hand wounds consistent with that position.

“The police officers' actions in Long Beach were reckless and careless. They never even spoke to Doug Zerby before ending his life,” said attorney Brian Claypool, who along with Galipo represented the child and Amici. “This verdict achieves justice not only for Doug’s son and family members but for the entire community since it could have been anyone sitting on that landing playing with the water nozzle.”

Garo Mardirossian, Zerby’s father’s attorney, said Shurtleff accidentally discharged a single shot from his pistol, then Ortiz fired his shotgun believing wrongly that Zerby had fired, and then Shurtleff, hearing those shots, fired again.

“The first shot was careless and never intended,” he said. Attorneys for Zerby's family will petition the court for more than $1 million in legal fees, and they say they expect to get that money given the jury's verdict.


The Los Angeles district attorney’s office found the officers were justified and reasonable and had acted in self-defense.

Prosecutors found that Zerby's arm position were consistent with someone pointing an object at officers. An autopsy showed that Zerby had been shot 12 times, and his blood-alcohol level was more than five times the limit for driving in California.


Zerby's mother said she has no ill will toward the person who called police in 2010, but the officers were just reckless.

“My son was a law-abiding young man who loved life, a typical Californian surfer opposed to violence of any kind.”

richard.winton@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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