The family of a 35-year-old man shot to death by Long Beach police after they mistook a water hose nozzle he was holding for a handgun was awarded $6.5 million in damages by a federal jury Thursday.
After a day of deliberations, jurors found that two officers violated Doug Zerby's constitutional rights, were negligent and acted with malice or reckless disregard for his life in the December 2010 fatal shooting outside a Belmont Shore apartment.
Zerby was shot by the two officers — one used a shotgun and the other a handgun — as they were responding to a report of a man with a handgun in the apartment complex's courtyard. They found Zerby outside an apartment on the stoop waving around what was later determined to be to a metal pistol grip water hose nozzle.
The Santa Ana jury awarded $3.5 million in damages to Zerby's son, another $1 million to his mother, Pam Amici, and $2 million to his father, Mark Zerby. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages and an agreement was reached for Officers Victor Ortiz and Jeffrey Shurtleff to be personally liable for $5,000 each, attorneys for the family said.
"I was pleased the jury found the police officers guilty of all the acts but it won't bring back my beautiful son," said Amici, a teacher at Long Beach Poly High School. "We got the best result we could and I hope Long Beach does the right thing and now fires these officers."
Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., said of the verdict: "It's very disappointing."
"The officers were dispatched to a call about a man with a gun, they arrived and saw what they thought was a gun, they saw a man point a 'gun' at them, and the jury found they don't have the right to defend themselves," James said. "That's concerning not just in this case, but for police officers across the country."
Long Beach officials did not return messages seeking comment.
Attorneys for the family presented evidence during the trial that the officers did not attempt to identify themselves to Zerby, nor did they order him to drop his weapon or even make him aware they were there. They argued the evidence showed it was a case of contagious fire, in which one officer fired by mistake, prompting the other officer to shoot based on the belief he was under fire.
By contrast, an attorney for the city argued that Shurtleff, a six-year veteran, and Ortiz, a 10-year veteran, opened fire because they believed that Zerby was about to shoot them.
Attorney Dale Galipo, who represented Zerby's son and mother, however, told jurors that the officers were not visible before they fired the deadly shots in the 5300 block of East Ocean Boulevard. Experts testified that it was unlikely Zerby was standing up with his hands outstretched, pointing the nozzle at police, as officers said, because he lacked hand wounds consistent with that position.
"The police officers' actions in Long Beach were reckless and careless. They never even spoke to Doug Zerby before ending his life," said attorney Brian Claypool, who also represented Zerby's son and mother. "This verdict achieves justice not only for Doug's son and family members, but for the entire community, since it could have been anyone sitting on that landing playing with the water nozzle."
Garo Mardirossian, attorney for Zerby's father, said Shurtleff accidentally discharged a single shot from his pistol before Ortiz fired his shotgun, believing that Zerby had fired. Shurtleff then heard those shots and fired again, Mardirossian said. "The first shot was careless and never intended," he said.
Attorneys for Zerby's family will petition the court for more than $1 million in legal fees and say they expect to get that amount, given the jury's verdict.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office found that the officers' actions were justified and reasonable and that they acted in self-defense. Prosecutors found that Zerby's arm positions were consistent with someone pointing an object at officers. An autopsy showed that Zerby had been shot 12 times and that his blood-alcohol level was more than five times the limit for driving in California.
Zerby's mother said she holds no ill will toward the person who called police in 2010 in the first place but believes the officers were reckless. "My son was a law-abiding young man who loved life, a typical Californian surfer opposed to violence of any kind."