$300,000 Payout : Council Panel Votes to Settle Jail Fight Suit

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles City Council committee Tuesday voted to pay $300,000 to a man who claimed he suffered brain damage in a fight with a civilian employee at Van Nuys Jail, where he was taken on a warrant for an outstanding jaywalking ticket.

The Finance and Revenue Committee approved a recommendation by the city attorney’s office to settle a lawsuit filed by Michael E. Bernal alleging police abuse in the May, 1981 incident.

Bernal, 26, of Van Nuys, was taken into custody after police, who had stopped him for a traffic violation, learned that he was wanted for failing to appear at a court hearing for a jaywalking ticket he previously received.


Once inside the jail, he was ordered to carry a mattress to a cell, the standard procedure for newly arrived prisoners.

From this point on, Bernal and the others involved in the incident, two civilian jail employees and a policeman, dispute the facts surrounding the case.

Beating Alleged

Bernal contends that he dropped the mattress, went to pick it up, lost his balance and fell against one of the men, according to his attorney Stephen Gray. Gray contended that a civilian jail employee and a police officer then held Bernal while a second civilian worker “beat the hell out of him.”

Police and civilians involved in the incident contended that Bernal was “verbally abusive” after his arrest, said Assistant City Atty. Philip J. Sugar. They said Bernal became further irritated when, after being ordered to carry the mattress to a cell, he was told to take it back to where he got it because there was a mattress already in the cell, Sugar said. They claimed that Bernal then struck a jail worker with the mattress and that a police officer attempted to restrain Bernal by putting his forearm around Bernal’s body.

The jail workers and the policeman denied that they struck Bernal with their fists, suggesting that he suffered injuries when he fell to the floor during the struggle.

Bernal lost three teeth and suffered a deep cut to the lip and bruises and cuts on his face in the incident, Sugar said in a report to the council.


Sugar said Bernal also has been diagnosed as having brain damage that makes it difficult for him to concentrate and remember recent events. A neurologist hired by the city to examine Bernal “cannot scientifically date the onset of this brain damage nor render any opinion as to its origin,” the report said.

Bernal’s medical bills total $30,000, and his future psychiatric care is expected to amount to $150,000, Sugar said. Bernal, who was trained as an aircraft mechanic but is now working as a house painter, also contended that he cannot earn as much as he could have had the incident not taken place.

“There appears to be an unreasonable financial risk to the city in bringing this matter to trial,” Sugar said in recommending the settlement. “In view of plaintiff’s serious injury, a potential verdict in this case could greatly exceed the amount of the settlement, even after deducting any comparative negligence assessed to the plaintiff.

The civilian jail worker who was accused of beating Bernal was suspended for five days, according to committee Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky, who said after Tuesday’s meeting that he and committee member Robert Farrell intend to look into the Police Department’s disciplinary action against the jail worker to determine if it was adequate. City officials could not immediately say whether the worker is still employed by the city.