Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 | In what is perhaps the largest police misconduct verdict in San Diego County history, a Superior Court jury Monday ordered the city of San Diego to pay $8 million to a 28-year-old man who, in early 2006, fell into a coma after allegedly being knocked to the ground by a San Diego Police Department officer.
Officer Joseph De Veaux knocked San Diego resident Pablo Gomez off his feet, causing Gomez to fall backward and hit his head on the pavement after an altercation in the Gaslamp Quarter in January of 2006, according to a lawsuit filed by Gomez in 2007. Gomez suffered a five-inch skull fracture, and was in a coma for nearly a month following the incident.
The jury in Judge Frederic L. Link’s courtroom found that Gomez suffered a total of $11.5 million in damages. However, the panel found both Gomez and the city negligent, with the city bearing 70 percent of the responsibility, and Gomez 30 percent in the incident, which occurred at the corner of Market Street and Third Avenue.
“I feel that with the finding of comparative fault, the jury worked hard to do the just thing,” said Gomez’s attorney Michael R. Marrinan. Marrinan, who specializes in police misconduct cases, said it is the largest jury verdict for such a case in county history.
De Veaux was not disciplined following the incident, and has since voluntarily left the department to work as a private contractor in Iraq, said Don Shanahan, an assistant city attorney who has experience with police conduct cases. Shanahan did not handle this case for the city. The city’s insurance company, AIG, hired an outside firm, Los Angeles-based Lynberg & Watkins, to litigate the case.
“This is a straight-up cop,” Shanahan said. “He is not a bad guy.”
Marrinan said the city did not take responsibility for De Veaux’s mistakes during the incident.
“They never seemed to look at whether [De Veaux] followed the training and guidelines he had been given at the academy,” said Marrinan, who tried the case with San Luis Obispo attorney J. Jude Basile.
Police department officials referred comment on the verdict to City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Aguirre lamented that lawyers in his office, particularly Shanahan, were not involved in the trial.
“We feel the City Attorney’s office has expertise in these cases,” Aguirre said. “We have an unblemished record going back several administrations.”
Aguirre said the city spent $2 million out of its own coffers on the case, and insurance covered the rest. Shanahan said that the city will likely appeal the verdict.
Bill Nemec, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said he is “deeply concerned” about the verdict. He questioned the city’s legal representation, wondering how the court could have reached such a large verdict if there was no criminal investigation or other actions taken against De Veaux.
“I have been on the department for 31 years, and can’t remember a time when we had that sizable of verdict against the city,” Nemec said.
The incident occurred Jan. 4, 2006, after the Rose Bowl football game, according to the lawsuit. Gomez, a law clerk with no criminal record, was walking with two friends toward their car on Market Street when they were “accosted by two intoxicated men who were loud, obnoxious, rude and threatening,” the suit said.
A fight broke out among the men, the suit said, and De Veaux pulled up in his police car. De Veaux called out to the men, and Gomez began jogging away from the scene, the suit said. De Veaux chased after Gomez and yelled for him to stop, the suit said.
Gomez did stop, and when he turned around “was violently knocked to the ground by Officer De Veaux,” the suit said. Gomez flew backward as he was hit, landing on his backside and causing his head to snap back and hit the pavement, the suit said.
“A loud smack could be heard as the back of Mr. Gomez’ head smashed onto the cement pavement,” the suit said. “He was immediately knocked out and lay on the pavement, unconscious.”
Shanahan said Gomez was intoxicated, and shouldn’t have run in the first place.
“If Gomez would have complied with the officer’s command, which he is obligated to do, this wouldn’t have happened,” Shanahan said.
Gomez was in a coma for over three weeks, and underwent two brain surgeries, Marrinan said. He spent several months in intensive care, unable to move or speak. At one point, Gomez’s heart stopped and he had to be revived through electric shocks to his heart, the suit said.
Gomez has since recovered, but not fully. He has no recollection of the incident, Marrinan said.