A bitter dispute has developed over the record $15.1 million federal civil-rights verdict awarded to the family of an unarmed black man killed in 2013 by a police sniper.
Fourteen hours with an arbitrator was not enough to resolve a bitter dispute over the $15.1 million federal jury verdict against the Lakewood Police Department, its chief and two officers for the 2013 fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man, according to court documents.
A federal judge had hoped lawyers representing the family and estate of Leonard Thomas and those for Lakewood, Chief Mike Zaro and the other officers could reach a settlement. However, the city’s attorneys have notified U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein that mediation has failed and are asking for a hearing.
Rothstein could set a hearing on several pending motions or rule on them without additional argument.
The city of Lakewood, Zaro and two of his officers, Sgt. Brian Markert and Officer Mike Wiley, were the focus of the July jury verdict, which levied $8.6 million in compensatory damages to Thomas’ parents and 9-year-old son, and an unprecedented $6.5 million in punitive damages against Zaro ($3 million), Markert ($2 million) and Wiley ($1.5 million).
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They were the key players in a four-hour SWAT standoff that ended when Thomas was shot by Markert, a sniper, as Thomas stood on the front porch of his Fife home with his 4-year-old son after agreeing to send the boy home with the boy’s grandmother.
Thomas was unarmed when he was shot, and no firearms were found in the Thomas home. Testimony showed that he had never threatened himself, his son or police during the incident.
The jury deliberated four days before finding the actions of Zaro, Markert, Wiley and others violated Thomas’ civil rights.
In asking the judge to throw out the verdict, Lakewood’s lawyers argued that the trial was racially charged and influenced the size of the award. They also have argued that all three officers — Zaro in particular — would suffer the financial equivalent of a death sentence if forced to pay the punitive damages, which they argue are not covered by the city’s insurance policy.
The city has argued in court documents that the jury was influenced by “obvious sentiment in the community about police excessive force against African-Americans.”
“Defendants were saddled with the impossible burden of defending not only this case, but also the ubiquitous but unsubstantiated narratives that police are allegedly targeting African-Americans for excessive force,” wrote attorney Brian Augenthaler. “It is apparent that the jury was inflamed as a result of the unchecked, factually devoid theory that Leonard was yet another ‘unarmed’ African-American man shot by police.”