Recent Verdict/Settlement | DOE v. City of Los Angeles

13 Year-old Boy Shot in Los Angeles County by LAPD Officer when Playing with Pellet Gun after Dark

Summary:

An LAPD officer shot a 13 year-old boy, who was playing with a pellet gun after dark on the street. The circumstances are disputed and the boy suffered quadriplegia. $19.2 million net awarded, after contributory negligence.

Plaintiff: Rohayent Gomez Eriza, age 13

Attorneys for Plaintiff: Gregory W. Moreno & Associates, by Christopher Moreno and Arnoldo Casillas, Montebello.

Plaintiffs Technical Experts: John Gardiner, Ph.D. P.E., biomechanics, Laguna Hills

Timothy Lanning, economics, Santa Ana

Roger Clark, police practices, Santee

Liz Holakawicz, life care planning, Carlsbad

Plaintiffs Medical Experts: Kimberly K. Bedell, M.D., rehabilitation, Long Beach

Eliezer Nussbaum, M.D., pulmonology, Long Beach

Toni Guajardo-Gonzalez PhD., psychology, Pasadena

Defendant: City of Los Angeles and LAPD police officer Victor Abarca

Attorneys for Defendant:  Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office Elizabeth Fitzgerald

Defendant’s Technical Experts: Harry Anderson Markel (in-house, LAPD), police practices

Defendant’s Medical Experts: Suzi Kim, M.D., rehabilitation, Long Beach

Case Name: Rohayent Gomez Eriza v. City of Los Angeles and Victor Abarca

Case Number: BC453870

Court: Los Angeles County Superior Court Central

Type of Action: Civil Rights, Police Shooting, Highlighted Verdicts

Judge or Arbitrator: Honorable Joseph Kalin

Date Action was Filed: Sunday, January 2, 2011

Date of Verdict: Friday, December 14, 2012

Type of Result: Jury Verdict

Trial Time: 3 weeks

Jury Deliberation Time: 3.5 hours (per plaintiff’s counsel) 1 day (per defense counsel).

Jury Polls: 9-3 on unreasonable force, 9-3 on negligence.

Result: 

Gross Verdict: $24,000,000

Net Verdict: $19,200,000 after contributory negligence.

Contributory—Comparative Negligence: The plaintiff was found 5 percent at fault by the jury, and his mother was found 15 percent at fault in the events leading to the shooting.

Economic Damages: $14,000,000 for future medical costs and lost wages.

Non-Economic Damages: $10,000,000

Punitive Damages: Trial against the police officer in the shooting for punitive damages is scheduled for January 14, 2013.

Background Facts

At approximately 7:30 p.m. December 16, 2010 plaintiff Hispanic boy, Rohayent Gomez age 13 and 5’7”, weighing 209 pounds was in front of his home with two friends, playing cops and robbers. His friends were the same age and home was located in the Glassel Park section of Los Angeles, an area known for criminal and gang activity. The three boys were on opposite sides of the street shooting Airsoft pellet guns at each other. The Airsoft guns have brightly colored tips and the pellet guns are realistic in appearance.

The plaintiff was shot by the defendant LAPD officer Abarca, when he stepped into the street, from behind a van.

The officers were not responding to criminal activity in the area, they were on routine patrol at the time of the shooting.

When the plaintiff was shot, he was hit in the left shoulder, with the bullet traveling toward his spinal column. The bullet struck his spine, shattering vertebrae (T3/T4) in his upper chest, and pulverizing his spinal cord. The plaintiff was paralyzed from the upper chest down.

Contentions

The circumstances leading to the shooting were described differently, by the plaintiff and the defendant.

Plaintiff

  • Police used excessive and deadly force.
  • The plaintiff did not know the police were there and did not know he had been shot, until he regained consciousness and was being handcuffed.
  • The plaintiff stood behind the van to put more pellets in his Airsoft pellet gun. He heard someone call him, causing him to step out from behind the van and was immediately shot, with no warning.
  • Counsel for the plaintiff at trial presented testimony by a biomechanical engineer, who contradicted the officer’s account of the shooting. The engineer showed that the trajectory did not match the officer’s version. The officer said that he and the plaintiff were standing in front of each other, the plaintiffs right shoulder was slightly forward, when he fired his gun. The physical evidence indicated that the plaintiffs left shoulder was forward, causing the trajectory of the bullet going left to right and downward. The plaintiff had to be approximately three to four feet to the officers left. The evidence puts the plaintiff, where he said he was located, at the corner of the van that he stepped out from, prior to being shot. The plaintiff’s account of the shooting was corroborated by the physical evidence.
  • Eye witness accounts were in contradiction of the officer’s version of the shooting. One of the eye witnesses said that the officers exited their vehicle and immediately drew their weapons. Both of the officers denied this and the defendant, Abarca who was the shooter said, if they had done this it would be in violation of the LAPD policy against the premature drawing or displaying a weapon. The eye witness contradicted the defendant’s use of a flashlight, saying that the officer did not use a flashlight. The witness said that the shooter, only gave one command, “Don’t [expletive] move” and then fired his weapon.

Defendant: 

  • The defendant said that the three individuals had been seen by the officers and ran when they saw the police. He said the three were ordered to come out and show their hands, and the plaintiff remained behind the van, even though he was commanded multiple times to come out from behind the van and show his hands.
  • The defense said that even though the plaintiffs pellet gun had a brightly colored tip on it, to indicate it was not a real gun, the color was close to the color of clothing the plaintiff was wearing and the darkness made it impossible to tell the pellet gun was a replica, by the officers.
  • The defendant contended the plaintiff emerged from behind the van and while doing so, placed the pellet gun in his sweatshirt pocket concealing it. The officer said the plaintiff then revealed the gun and he feared for his life. He shot the plaintiff one time and struck him in the chest, paralyzing him. The defendant stated he and the plaintiff were standing facing each other and the plaintiff’s right shoulder was forward at the time he fired the single shot.
  • The defense contends that approximately one year after the shooting, officers responded to a domestic dispute at the plaintiff’s home. They spoke with the plaintiff at that time, and the plaintiff told them he was frightened and had run from police on the night the shooting occurred.
  • Defendants contacted the Airsoft gun store owner, who testified his store does not sell the pellet guns to people under 18 years-old, as contributory negligence. He stated his store advises customers that the guns cannot be used in public places and testified that customers are provided a list of facilities where they may use the Airsoft guns.

Injuries and Damages

Plaintiff’s Physical Injuries Claim: The gunshot wound caused a lobectomey, lung puncture, severed spine, paraplegia, scar, disfigurement and physical therapy.

The plaintiff was transported by ambulance, after the shooting to Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.

The plaintiff was diagnosed by doctors as sustaining a single gunshot wound to his left shoulder, which went through his left clavicle puncturing the top part of the left lung. Then the bullet tore through the T-3 and T-4 vertebrae, severing his spinal cord.  The plaintiff remained in the hospital for three weeks, where he was intubated and underwent a lobectomy to remove the upper part of the left lobe of his lung. The damage sustained by the shooting, left the plaintiff paralyzed from the chest down. After the plaintiff was discharged from the hospital, he then spent three months in a rehabilitation center.

Medical experts for the plaintiff testified that the 13 year-old is permanently paralyzed and will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Due to the long intubation period, while in the hospital the plaintiff continues to have respiratory issues. The plaintiff suffered scarring in his bronchial tubes. The plaintiff has difficulty clearing fluids from his chest and will require ongoing respiratory monitoring.

Additional Notations

The defense did not dispute the nature of the plaintiff’s injuries or the extent of the damage.

  • There was a settlement demand for $5,000,000 per plaintiff’s counsel, with no offer from the defense.
  • Plaintiff did not make any settlement demands at any time, per defense counsel and defense did not make any offers.

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