Newport Pays $1.5 Million for Officer’s Tragic Mistake : Settlement: A man with a radio that looked like a shotgun to police was seriously wounded by 1988 shotgun blast.
The city of Newport Beach agreed Thursday to pay $1.5 million to a Liberian immigrant who was shot and critically wounded by a police officer who mistook his portable radio for a sawed-off shotgun.
The settlement, to be paid to Sundaga Bryant for the Sept. 4, 1988, shooting, represents the largest amount that Newport Beach has ever paid for a police-related lawsuit, city officials said.
“Sunny (Sundaga) is very pleased by the outcome of the settlement because it will guarantee him security for his wife and five children. That was his desire,” said Thomas Girardi, Bryant’s attorney.
Bryant, 27, formerly of Orange, was shot by police over the Labor Day weekend nearly two years ago when he and his wife, Marlene, were walking along the beach near Balboa Pier to escape the inland heat. The incident occurred around 3 a.m. as police responded to a report of a man carrying a sawed-off shotgun in the area.
Officer Derek Duncan, who was later cleared by the Orange County district attorney’s office of any criminal wrongdoing in the incident, said he shot Bryant, then 26, after he mistook his 18-inch-long radio for a shotgun.
Pellets from Duncan’s shotgun blast pierced Bryant’s arms and torso. His injuries were so severe that he cannot use his left arm and has been left with restricted movement of his right arm, according to Girardi. As a result of the injuries, Bryant has been unable to continue his work as a nurse and cab driver and will require extensive rehabilitation before he can ever work again, his attorney said.
Bryant, who attended the Thursday settlement conference in Superior Court along with his wife, appeared solemn outside the courtroom and declined to comment, referring all questions to attorneys.
“This has been very draining for him emotionally,” said Bryant’s other attorney, Christian W. Keena. Bryant now lives in Rialto.
With the case scheduled to go to trial Monday, Superior Court Judge Jack K. Mandel assisted in hammering out the settlement Thursday afternoon. Last week the city offered Bryant between $750,000 and $800,000 to drop the lawsuit, Bryant rejected it and the offer was raised, according to Newport Beach City Atty. Robert Burnham.
“I think the amount is a fair one,” Burnham said. “We are pleased that (Bryant) will be financially secure and that this tragedy won’t have a negative financial impact on him or his family.”
“Because the city is self-insured, this will be a direct $1.5-million hit against our general fund operating budget,” said City Manager Robert L. Wynn. “We are concerned about it. It will have a large impact on the budget. It will have to come from the general fund and it may affect other city projects.”
The city’s 1989-90 general fund operating budget is about $57 million, Wynn said.
Burnham said the city agreed to settle the matter rather than go to court because of the strong sympathy a jury probably would have shown Bryant.
Even if a jury would have agreed that under the circumstances the officer acted reasonably, “there would have been a reluctance to send this man (Bryant) home without a lot of money,” Burnham said.
The district attorney’s investigation into the shooting concluded that Duncan, then 25, “reasonably and honestly, albeit mistakenly, believed that he was being confronted by a life-threatening danger.”
Burnham said that even a police procedures expert hired by Bryant’s attorneys concluded that, under the circumstances, Duncan did not act unreasonably.
“In the dark, that radio strapped around his waist looked very similar in dimension to the sawed-off shotguns that are sold,” said Burnham.
Duncan said he ordered Bryant to freeze, but he turned around instead, and Duncan fired.
Bryant, however, claimed that he heard no warning from police and did not even hear the shotgun blast that felled him.
“I didn’t even see the cops,” he said earlier. “I didn’t hear nothing. All I feel is pain (as I lay) on the ground . . . pain like I never felt before in my life.”
He said he was facing his wife on the beach and “in a split second, I was laying on the ground. I heard nothing. I didn’t hear the gun go off.”
Bryant said during the 1988 press conference that he remembered an officer prodding him with his foot, apparently to find the gun police thought was there.
“He said, ‘Oh . . . he’s carrying a radio!”’ Bryant recalled.
Around the time of the shooting, police apprehended a 14-year-old nearby who was carrying a pellet gun. Burnham said the youth froze when police ordered him to.
The exact timing of when the juvenile was stopped and questioned, according to one of Bryant’s attorneys, would have been one of the key issues in the case if it had gone to trial because that may have been broadcast over a frequency monitored by portable police radios, including Duncan’s.
Bryant’s lawsuit accused Newport Beach police of using “unjustified and excessive force.” In seeking damages, Bryant alleged the shooting left him suffering severe mental and physical shock.
Bryant will receive a lifetime annuity and lump sum of money up front. The exact structure of the settlement has not been decided.