A federal jury has found Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca personally liable in a case involving abuse of an inmate in the Men's Central Jail, meaning the sheriff could be required to pay $100,000 out of pocket.
It is the first time a jury has held Baca personally at fault in a deputy use-of-force case. Sheriff's officials called the verdict a "huge mistake" and said they would appeal.
Plaintiff Tyler Willis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in October 2010 against L.A. County and several deputies and sheriff's officials, alleging that deputies severely beat him in 2009 while he was a 23-year-old inmate awaiting trial on charges of lewd acts with a child. He was later convicted.
Willis alleged that he was punched and kicked repeatedly, shot with a Taser multiple times and struck "numerous times" in the ankle with a heavy metal flashlight, causing fractures and head injuries.
After a weeklong trial, the jury returned last week with a verdict in Willis' favor. They found that the conduct of Deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero, Capt. Daniel Cruz and Sheriff Baca had been "malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard" of Willis' rights, and awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages as part of their verdict.
Rather than go through a second phase of the trial to determine punitive damages, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to a figure of $165,000. The defendants agreed this week to divide the $165,000 among themselves, with Baca paying $100,000.
Willis' attorneys argued that Baca had failed to heed warnings that letting deputies use heavy flashlights to control inmates could cause serious injuries. They also cited findings by a citizens commission convened to study violence in the county jails, which found that Baca had failed to control use of force in the facilities.
"I think it speaks volumes that members of the jury heard the evidence and said, 'This goes all the way to the top,'" said Mark Pachowicz, one of Willis' attorneys.
Attorneys who represented the Sheriff's Department in the case did not respond to messages seeking comment, but sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department plans to appeal.
He said the use of force was "brought on by the inmate" and that deputies had acted within policy. He also contended that the jury had erred in considering the jail commission findings when they decided Baca was personally liable.
"We respect juries, but they made a mistake," Whitmore said. "This is a mistake that needs to be rectified, and rectified quickly, and we will."
It is unusual, but not unheard of, for a jury to find the head of a law enforcement agency liable for the actions of rank-and-file officers.
In 1992, a federal jury found then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers liable for $44,001 in damages in connection with a deadly shooting. A special unit within the police force shot and killed three suspects and wounded a fourth after a robbery at a McDonald's restaurant.
The jurors said they assessed the relatively low damages to not reward the families of criminals while at the same time sending a message that the controversial special unit responsible for the shooting needed to be revamped.
In that case, almost half of the damages were assigned to Gates, but the City Council voted to pay the awards. A federal appeals court later upheld the right of the council to shield police officers from punitive damages awarded in excessive-force cases.
In order to "indemnify officers" in this way, it must be found that the employees were acting within the course and scope of their employment and acting without malice. It must also be determined that paying the damages would be in the best interest of the public entity.