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Man choked by off-duty L.A. firefighter wins $7.4-million settlement

Video shot on Samuel Chang’s cell phone on the Halloween night he was physically confronted by three men including two off-duty Los Angeles firefighters. (Courtesy Taylor Ring Law Firm)

A man choked unconscious by an off-duty Los Angeles firefighter convicted of assault but never jailed will receive a $7.4-million settlement in connection with the attack, his attorney said.

A group of men held down Samuel Chang in 2015 as he was handing out Halloween candy near his grandmother’s home in Chatsworth.

For the record:
9:55 PM, Feb. 06, 2019 A previous version of this story erroneously stated that $1.4 million will be paid on behalf of Eugene Elbert. The correct figure is $1 million.

Video footage and court records show Eric Carpenter, a member of the L.A. Fire Department, restraining Chang in a chokehold. For six minutes, the young man gasped desperately for air before going limp.

The assailants performed CPR, but Chang, then 23, remained hospitalized for weeks, suffering kidney failure, severe head trauma and other injuries.

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Carpenter kept his job as a city firefighter after being allowed to plead the felony assault down to a misdemeanor in 2017 with no jail time, despite objections from the lead detective on the case who asked the judge to review the videos before sentencing.

Chang’s attorney, David Ring, said his client has been left with lifelong injuries from the attack that nearly cost him his life.

“Samuel was brutally beaten by these thugs,” Ring said. “The civil settlement provides him with some justice for what he endured. Yet we remain incredibly disappointed that the district attorney’s office failed to hold the defendants accountable for this horrific attack.”

A physical therapy student at the time, Chang said he had to delay his graduate studies for almost a year and still suffers from chronic headaches and has trouble reading and processing information as a result of his injuries.

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“When you think of firefighters, you think of heroes,” Chang told The Times in 2017. “You don’t think of people who violently attack someone.”

Chang sued his attackers in 2017 in Los Angeles County Superior Court for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment and negligence. Five men were named in the lawsuit, although only three of the men were criminally charged.

Ring said the payout does not make up for being victimized twice — first on the street and then in the courts, where he accused Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey of giving Carpenter preferential treatment.

Carpenter’s lawyer, Michael Goldstein, served as Lacey’s campaign finance director when she was elected in 2012 and donated thousands of dollars to her political accounts over the years, according to campaign finance records. Goldstein and the district attorney’s office denied that the lawyer’s connections to Lacey had anything to do with Carpenter’s plea deal.

Carpenter, who faced up to seven years in prison, was allowed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge and was sentenced to three years’ probation and 135 days of community service, records show.

Michael Anthony Vitar, another L.A. firefighter who was off-duty at the time of the assault and who gained fame as a child actor in the Disney film “The Sandlot,” and Thomas Molnar, one of Carpenter’s neighbors, both pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery charges. The two also received three years’ probation and 90 days of community service, according to court records. Both Carpenter and Vitar remained on the city’s payrolls after serving a six-month unpaid suspension.

Insurers have agreed to pay $2.1 million on behalf of Molnar and $1.5 million each on behalf of Carpenter and Vitar. In addition, $1.3 million will be paid on behalf of Michael Cirlin and $1 million on behalf of Eugene Elbert, who also were named in the lawsuit. Each man has maintained his innocence, and the settlement does not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

During the criminal trial, prosecutors said Chang was outside, handing out Halloween candy to children — including at Carpenter’s home — when some mothers asked him to stop, but he refused. Witnesses at Carpenter’s house also said Chang’s zipper was down.

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After Carpenter and his friends confronted Chang, he began filming the men. Video from Chang’s iPhone showed the men, led by Carpenter in a He-Man costume, following Chang and repeatedly accusing him of trying to give “drug-laced candy” to children.

In another video shot by a bystander and taken as evidence by police, the group takes Chang to the ground, where Carpenter wraps his arm around Chang’s throat and the others pin him down. Chang eventually goes limp, and the men begin lifesaving measures, according to the video.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes


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