Judge throws out $85M award over California custody death

Aug 18, 2022, 8:27 PM | Updated: 8:30 pm

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal judge has thrown out an $85 million lawsuit award over the death of a Southern California man who was beaten, hogtied and shocked with a stun gun by sheriff’s deputies in 2015.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff said Wednesday that the March award by a federal jury in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of Lucky Phounsy against San Diego County couldn’t be supported by the trial evidence, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“The size of the jury’s wrongful death award is far out of proportion to the evidence and indicates that the jury may have impermissibly included in the award some measure of plaintiffs’ emotional distress, or some amount intended to punish defendants,” the judge wrote in a 75-page ruling.

At the time, it was the nation’s largest civil rights award for a custody death.

In her ruling Wednesday, Huff declined to order a new trial and upheld findings of excessive force and negligence. However, a new trial will still be needed to decide how much money the county should pay.

The county declined to comment on the decision, the Union-Tribune said.

Phounsy, 32, died after a confrontation with nearly a dozen San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, including one who later served jail time for assaulting women while on duty.

Family members said he was suffering a mental health crisis.

Phounsy was hogtied, shocked with a stun gun and restrained at the Santee home of a relative on April 13, 2015. Phounsy’s heart stopped on the way to the hospital. He was resuscitated, but died several days later.

The county medical examiner concluded his death was accidental and the result of the long struggle with deputies, combined with the effects of the drug ecstasy he had taken several days before.

But lawyers for the family disputed that conclusion and argued that the conduct of the deputies caused him to suffocate.

They pointed to deputies binding Phounsy’s hands and ankles in restraints, failing to monitor his vital signs and continuing to restrain him when one deputy forcibly held his head down while he was in an ambulance.

The case was tried twice in federal court. In September 2021, a jury deadlocked and could not reach a verdict. At a second trial held in March, after only a day of deliberation, the jury found the county liable and awarded Phounsy’s family $85 million.

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Judge throws out $85M award over California custody death