A state appellate court Tuesday upheld a $23-million judgment against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for a 1989 incident in Cerritos in which a group of deputies was accused of brutalizing 36 party-goers attending a bridal shower at the home of a Samoan American family.
A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal, 2nd District, unanimously upheld the 1995 award, reportedly the largest against a U.S. law enforcement agency.
"We are very, very happy and relieved that the appellate court saw it the same way as the judge in the underlying case," said Garo Mardirossian, the lead attorney representing the 35 plaintiffs who will share the award. The 36th plaintiff has died since the suit was filed.
Late Tuesday, the county counsel's office issued a memo to the Board of Supervisors saying, "We plan to petition the California Supreme Court for a hearing."
The final decision on whether to proceed must be made by the Board of Supervisors, whose members were heading to Washington on a lobbying trip Tuesday. The case, which went to trial in February 1995 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, stemmed from a melee at a shower for Melinda Dole Paopao. Sheriff's deputies, saying they had received a call about party-goers fighting in the street with sticks and knives, responded in force.
Although deputies said that family members and friends greeted them by hurling rocks and bottles, a neighbor's videotape--which jurors watched repeatedly--failed to validate the allegations. Criminal charges were quickly dropped against most of the 36 people arrested in the incident.
David Dole, the most seriously injured, said that his hand was broken and that blows from batons and flashlights damaged his brain.
Jurors in the civil case, who heard testimony from more than 80 witnesses, ruled that 25 deputies used excessive force and made false arrests when they responded to the incident wearing riot gear.
Other guests allegedly attacked that day included Melinda's sister, professional wrestler Emily "Mount Fiji" Dole, and Samoan tribal chief Fea Talamaivao. Orlanda Dole said she was kicked and beaten unconscious, leaving a trail of blood to her holding cell. A pregnant woman also was beaten, along with two elderly men and several other women, attorneys alleged.
The Sheriff's Department has yet to discipline any of the deputies involved in the melee.
"There was substantial evidence at trial to show that the appellants did not arrest the plaintiffs based on particularized information or instructions . . . or based on their own observations showing that individual plaintiffs had committed crimes," the judges wrote in their decision. "Substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the deputies simply entered the Dole house and arrested everyone in it, without individualized probable cause."
The judges noted: "Of the 36 individuals arrested, only eight were ever charged with crimes; three of those were acquitted, and charges were dismissed as to the others."
County officials Tuesday were trying to figure out how to pay the massive award. No decision has been made, said Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Sandra Davis.
But she said the county could float a "judgment bond" to pay the cost without having to take too much cash out of the operating budget.
"It's not unusual; the city does it often," Davis said. "But we haven't done anything like that in a long, long time."
Such a move would require the supervisors' approval. Davis also said the county could pay out of a Contract Cities Liability Trust Fund, which was set aside to pay such judgments.
The Sheriff's Department contracts with many smaller cities in Los Angeles County to provide them with law enforcement services, and the cities pay surcharges into the trust fund to help cover lawsuit damages against the Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff's officials declined to discuss the matter.
"The department hasn't seen the decision yet, except for word of mouth," said Deputy Bill Martin, a department spokesman. "It would be inappropriate to comment."
Several members of the Dole family held a tearful news conference Tuesday afternoon to express their relief and gratitude.
"Thank god it's over with," Emily Dole said. "This goes to show that in the United States of America, justice does prevail."
She added: "Nine years is a long, long time. We can forgive, but we cannot forget."
The civil court jury originally awarded the plaintiffs $15.9 million in damages, including $3.8 million to David Dole, and the judge tacked on $2.3 million in fees. Dole's father, Arthur, who had thrown the party for his daughter, was awarded $1 million.
The latest figure of $23 million includes the $5 million in interest that has accrued during the appellate period. That makes it nearly six times what the city of Los Angeles paid Rodney G. King to settle his federal lawsuit. For each year the county delays, it must pay 10% interest.
"They should have resolved this case early on for a lot less cost and a lot less grief," said Mardirossian, who worked with civil rights attorney Hugh R. Manes on the case. "Their tactic has been to delay. . . . They will be paying 10% interest as long as it takes."
He expressed frustration that none of the deputies have been disciplined in the case.
"They have all been promoted or retired by choice," Mardirossian said. "This is part of a pattern and practice of the Sheriff's Department. This is not an isolated incident."