(CN) - Los Angeles may owe more than $1 million damages to the estate of a young autistic man killed in a 2008 altercation with police, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
Officer Joseph Cruz shot and killed Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, an autistic 21-year-old, had been sleeping in the street at the time of the early morning altercation with Los Angeles Police Officer Joseph Cruz.
Cruz initially claimed that Usman cut him with a knife and that he had shot him in self-defense.
Usman's family claimed in a subsequent civil rights lawsuit that the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office had added insult to injury by failing to notify them of the death for 21 days. They said that, by that time, the body had decayed to the point where it prevented them from burying their son in accordance with the religious customs of Islam, the family's religion.
In addition to the city and county of Los Angeles, the LAPD, the coroner, Cruz and another officer were named as defendants.
Usman's estate, his parents and his siblings, Usma and Mohammad Umar Chaudhry, filed the complaint. The Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network also sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the case.
Most of the allegations fell apart, but the case went to trial on the excessive-force claim against Cruz, the assault-and-battery claim against the city, and the wrongful-death claim against Cruz and the city.
Jurors ultimately heard that Usman's DNA was not on the knife that he had allegedly used to cut Cruz, and that the knife was a kind of "boot knife" popular with law enforcement. The plaintiffs also showed that Cruz had shot Usman while Usman was falling, not while he was coming at him with a knife as Cruz had claimed.
The jury awarded $700,000 to the Chaudhrys for their wrongful-death claim under state law, and $1 million to the estate for its excessive-force claim based on Usman's pain and suffering.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner later struck the $1 million award, however, finding that it went against a California law that prohibited recovery for pain and suffering in survival actions.
A three-judge appeals panel of reversed Klausner on Monday in a ruling that could have dramatic consequences for law enforcement in the circuit.
"The thing that comes out of today's case is the rule of law," said attorney and University of Southern California law professor Olu Orange, who represents the Chaudhrys. "Cases where civil rights violations result in death are now coverable for pre-death pain and suffering. That makes it more expensive for police to kill people, so hopefully there will be more training when it comes to use of force."
The panel found that "California's prohibition against pre-death pain and suffering damages limits recovery too severely to be consistent" with federal law, and that it "therefore does not apply to [civil rights] claims where the decedent's death was caused by the violation of federal law." (Brackets added.)
"Even in cases of slow death where pre-death economic damages might be available, § 377.34's limitation will often be tantamount to a prohibition, for the victims of excessive police force are often low-paid or unemployed," Judge William Fletcher wrote for the court. "The same is likely to be true for prisoners whose death is caused by the deliberate indifference of jail or prison officials in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Therefore, a prohibition against pre-death pain and suffering awards for a decedent's estate has the perverse effect of making it more economically advantageous for a defendant to kill rather than injure his victim."
The $1 million award is not safe yet, however, as the trial court must still consider on remand whether the amount is excessive.
Cruz was also inappropriately cleared of the estate's due process claims, the court found, and the Chaudhrys will have another chance with their negligence claim against the county and the coroner.
The coroner's office allegedly thought that Usman's address was the "Celebration Theatre in West Hollywood," according to the ruling. Though investigator Joyce Kato later found several other addresses connected with Usman's name, including the correct one in Bellflower, Calif., she waited much longer to follow up.
"The Chaudhrys' address, while not listed as current, was recent," Judge Fletcher wrote. "Had Kato not 'overlooked' the Chaudhrys' address in late March, she would have sent a letter or run the address through Accurint, discovered the Chaudhrys' identities, and then informed them of Usman's death. The only reason the Chaudhrys were not informed in late March was that Kato focused on only one of the addresses listed on the DMV report and did not double-check her paperwork until twenty-one days later. Under those circumstances, a jury could reasonably find that the Coroner did not make a reasonable effort to locate Usman's family."
Fletcher and his colleagues did affirm dismissal of Usma and Umar's negligence claim related to the coroner's late notification but found that "the full scope of the coroner's duty appears to be an open question."
"The District Court may address the question on remand," the panel said.