Man's Family Gets $2.1 Million in Police Wrongful-Death Suit

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded $2.1 million Friday to the relatives of a Southwest Los Angeles assault and robbery victim who died while in police custody six years ago.

Testimony at the three-week trial indicated that Los Angeles police officers who responded to the May 19, 1979, call believed that Jerry Eugene Wright Jr., 20, was under the influence of drugs and arrested him, instead of obtaining medical attention for him, the Wright family's attorney said Friday.

Witnesses also testified that one of the officers kicked Wright and threw him to the ground, while a Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic who arrived at the scene failed to check Wright's pulse or blood pressure, the attorney said.

Left to Die

"Basically, they left him there to die in the street," Alvin Michaelson, the attorney for Wright's family, said Friday.

Wright's family filed the wrongful-death and negligence suit against the city in 1980. In its verdict, the jury awarded the relatives $2 million on the wrongful-death allegation and $100,000 for the negligence.

An autopsy conducted by the Los Angeles County coroner's office determined that Wright, who had been employed as a bank clerk, died of "massive intravascular sickling" due to sickle cell disorder, coroner's spokesman Bill Gold said Friday.

Michaelson said Wright had "sickle cell trait," or the presence of deformed red cells in his blood. The condition became exacerbated by the lack of oxygen and intravenous fluids in his system, which caused Wright to go into shock and led to his death, Michaelson said.

Named as defendants in the suit, along with the City of Los Angeles, were Officer Robert Saurman, 32, then a five-year department veteran, and Fire Department paramedic Daniel Maloney.

Saurman, currently a detective assigned to the Foothill Division's anti-gang detail, said Friday that "it was never established that (Wright) was a victim," when officers pulled up in front of the man's home the morning of the incident.

Told of Michaelson's version of what happened, Saurman said: "He (the attorney) never proved those were the facts of the case."

"It is a shame that decisions that have to be made in seconds in a field situation can later be scrutinized and dissected by people who are trained to distort the facts," Saurman said. "It is judgments like these that cause good police officers to reevaluate their attitudes toward crime fighting."

Maloney, who is still employed as a paramedic by the Fire Department, was unavailable for comment Friday. Deputy City Atty. Dan Woodard, who handled the case for the city, also was unavailable for comment.

Wright's father, Jerry Wright Sr., a real estate broker in South-Central Los Angeles, said he was "very pleased" by the jury's verdict.

"I feel that justice really did prevail," he said. "It won't ever bring Jerry back. But I think it might teach them the basic care they have to provide. This was a case where they just weren't concerned."

John Neville, administrator of the liability division of the city attorney's office, said the city has not decided yet whether to appeal the jury's verdict or move for a new trial.

"There's going to be some very serious internal discussions on the case," Neville said.

Police Called

According to Michaelson, the incident leading to Wright's death began around 3 a.m., when neighbors called police while Wright was being beaten and robbed near his home in the 3900 block of Coco Avenue.

A neighbor who came to Wright's assistance was about to take him to the hospital in his own car when police arrived, Michaelson said.

"They ordered Jerry out at gunpoint and asked him to raise his hands," Michaelson said. "He had just been beaten and he couldn't do it. So they took him out of the car, threw him down on the ground face first, handcuffed him behind his back and arrested him."

When Wright's mother and brother arrived, they saw that he apparently was going into shock, but they said Saurman told them, "He's on dope."

Michaelson said the officers thought Wright was under the influence of PCP and alcohol but toxicological tests conducted by the coroner's office found neither in his body.

The attorney said that when Maloney drove up, "he didn't ask any questions."

"He saw the man laying face down, went up to him, didn't take his pulse or blood pressure and left," Michaelson said. "The family said they overheard him say, 'He just overdosed. He's OK to book.' "

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