Tragic Long Beach Death - Jury Delivered a Substantial Award

An eight-member Los Angeles jury delivered an award of $9.8 million to the family of a woman shot dead by two Long Beach police officers in 2017. The jury found the officers acted with “malice and oppression” to cause the death of Ms. Sinuon Pream, a 37 year old, mother of four, who suffered from mental illness.

How the tragedy unfolded

Pream was pushing a shopping cart down a Long Beach street near the Veterans Administration’s hospital parking lot when confronted by two Long Beach city police officers. They were responding to reports that Ms. Pream had threatened three people with a steak knife with a 4” blade she was carrying. After several warnings to stop and drop the weapon, the two officers testified in court that she stepped towards them forcing them to shot her in self-defense.

Family claims

Her family claimed that instead of deescalating the situation, the two officers escalated the situation and violated her civil rights by using excessive force against her. The two officers fired eight shots hitting Ms. Pream with six of those shots. Three bullets hit Ms. Pream in her back and buttocks. While they immediately began administering medical care, Ms. Pream died at a hospital of her wounds.

Ms. Pream’s parents and her four children, two of them still minors, sued the City of Long Beach for wrongful death, excessive use of force and violation of Ms. Pream’s civil rights under 42 U.S. Code § 1983, a federal law creating a civil cause of action for deprivation of rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment, Sec. 1, to the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1868 by Congress, declares that states may not abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States and sets out the protections of due process and equal protection for “any person,” none of which states (and local governments) may deprive or deny.

Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment, Sec. 5, gives Congress the power to enforce Sec. 1 by enacting appropriate legislation. To do that, the 42nd Congress in 1871 passed 38 U.S.C. § 1983 to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. It effectively created a Fourteenth Amendment action for damages (and for injunctive relief) against “Every person,” acting under color of state or local law, who deprives a person of his or her Fourteenth Amendment rights and thereby causes damage. In Supreme Court case law, “Every person” includes state and local government officials as well as local governments themselves (but not states).

The City of Long Beach, defending the officers, moved for summary judgment citing qualified immunity as a defense. Judge Terry Hatter, Jr. of the United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division held that:

“The qualified immunity doctrine is a shield that protects government officials from liability for civil damages as long as their behavior does not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory rights of which a reasonable person would have known. See Easley v. City of Riverside, 890 F.3d. 851, 855 (9th Cir. 2018). Moreover, at summary judgment, a government official can be denied qualified immunity in a § 1983 action only if: (1) The facts alleged, viewed in the light most favorable to the party asserting injury, showed that the officer's behavior violated a constitutional right; and (2) If the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the violation, such that a reasonable person would have known that his conduct was unlawful in that particular scenario. Easley, 890 F.3d. at 856.

It is clearly established that use of deadly force toward an individual that does not pose an imminent threat to an officer or a third-party is a Fourth Amendment violation. Easley, 890 F.3d at 856. The inquiry, here, then, is whether Pream was an imminent threat to Muhlenkamp, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs have established the existence of significant issues of material fact as to the reasonableness of the officers' decision to shoot. For example, Plaintiffs' forensic expert contended that three of the seven shots that hit Pream entered through her left buttock, her right buttock, and her lower back. However, Muhlenkamp stated that he paused between every shot to determine whether Pream still posed a threat and that he shot each time because Pream continued to lunge toward him. Because of the existence of triable issues, qualified immunity is not appropriate at this time.” Estate of Pream v. City of Long Beach, No. CV1704295TJHFFMX, 2018 WL 6307893, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2018)”

After the City’s motion for summary judgment was denied, the case moved for consideration before the jury, which entered a verdict for the family and assessed their damages. According to the local press coverage, the jury’s award represents the largest jury verdict that has ever been awarded by a jury against the City of Long Beach arising out of a police shooting, and the second largest verdict ever handed down by a jury in the Central District of California in a police shooting case.

The jury awarded $3.5 million to Ms. Pream’s estate for the violation of Ms. Pream’s civil rights. It then found punitive damages against the officers, which allowed the parents and children of the deceased woman to recover damages for the loss of their familial relationship with their daughter. Those damages were delineated for each member of the family.

“To establish a prima facie case as to the interference with familial relationship claim, Plaintiffs must show that Muhlenkamp's and Domingo's shooting of Pream shocked the conscience. See Porter v. Osborn, 546 F.3d 1131, 1137 (9th Cir. 2008). In other words, an officer is liable if he acted with deliberate indifference or a purpose to harm the victim, rather than with a legitimate objective of taking the suspect into custody or defending someone at risk of imminent harm. See Hayes v. County of San Diego, 736 F.3d 1223, 1230 (9th Cir. 2013). Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs have established a prima facie case that Muhlenkamp and Domingo shot Pream with deliberate indifference based on the evidence presented that Pream was shot three times in her back and butt.” Estate of Pream v. City of Long Beach, No. CV1704295TJHFFMX, 2018 WL 6307893, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2018)

Jury's verdict

Following the jury’s verdict on March 22, 2019, on April 19th, 2019, the City of Long Beach moved for a new trial and renewed their motion for judgment on the verdict. Their petition stated that: “Defendants' motion is made on the grounds that: (1) the weight of the evidence does not support the jury's liability verdict; (2) the Court prejudicially erred in instructing the jury on plaintiffs' 14th Amendment claim; (3) the jury's $9,000,000 verdict is excessive in light of the evidence presented; (4) plaintiffs' counsel made an improper "Golden Rule" argument to the jury, and that misconduct improperly influenced the jury to award excessive 14th Amendment damages for Pream's pre-death pain and suffering; and (5) the Court's imposition of overly strict time limits and uneven application of those time limits during trial denied defendants a fair trial.”1

On June 3, 2019, the parties reached a settlement and petitioned the court to close the case in light of the settlement, whose terms were not disclosed. A final document of the settlement is to be filed with the court within 60 days.

If you have a legal issue you need help with, the attorneys at Whitcomb, Selinsky Law PC would love to share their expertise with you. Please call (303) 543-1958.

1 Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia. (R.S. § 1979; Pub. L. 96–170, § 1, Dec. 29, 1979, 93 Stat. 1284; Pub. L. 104–317, title III, § 309(c), Oct. 19, 1996, 110 Stat. 3853.)

2 Case 2:17-cv-04295-TJH-FFM Document 138 Filed 04/19/19 Page 1 of 19 Page ID #:2768

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