No Recovery, You Owe Us Nothing
Lawyers for Police Shooting Victim Dontrell Stephens Press for Timely Payment of $23.1 Million Jury Award
Protracted Claims Bill Process Compounds the Injustice Suffered by Unarmed Victim of Police Shooting, According to Searcy Denney Attorneys
West Palm Beach, Fla. – (Feb. 10, 2015) – South Florida law firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley will seek expedited payment of the $23.1 million that a federal jury awarded its client Dontrell Stephens, a 20 year old unarmed black man who was shot by a policeman four times in four seconds during a bicycle infraction stop near West Palm Beach on September 13, 2013.The case is Stephens v. Sheriff of Palm Beach County, Florida et al, case number 9:14-cv-80425.
Despite the nationwide outrage when Deputy Adams Lin shot Mr. Stephens, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the waist down, payment of the February 3, 2016 judgment can be delayed for many years and, in fact, might never be made.
The reason is that, according to the Sovereign Immunity doctrine governing actions against Florida state entities, judgments in excess of $200,000 must be submitted as a Claims Bill and then approved by the state legislature. However, that legislative process will not even commence until the Palm Beach Sherriff’s Office has exhausted its legal appeals, a process likely to take up to two years.
“This is an extraordinarily flagrant and cruel injustice,” said Searcy Denney lawyer Jack Scarola, who represented Mr. Stephens at trial. “This young man is completely incapacitated. His medical bills are mounting into the multiple millions: close to $2 million already and another $5 million for basic future care. Yet the Claims Bill process threatens to filibuster the relief a federal jury found to be essential to Dontrell’s survival.
“Dontrell’s life literally depends on his ability to obtain immediate basic medical care, but a very conservative legislature may not even consider Dontrell’s claim for years, if ever,” added Scarola. Indeed, in the last five years, only 27 Claims Bills of 159 that were filed became law.
To redress the injustice, the Searcy Denney team will ask the Federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to exempt the Stephens case from the Claims Bill process based on contentions that policies of the Sheriff’s Office contributed to the violation of Dontrell Stephens’ constitutional protections against the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers. According to federal law, awards against defending entities that have engaged in patterns of civil rights abuse, or have created an atmosphere in which abuse is encouraged, are required to be paid without legislative approval.
“Such a pattern on the part of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is patently demonstrable,” said Searcy Denney’s Darryl Lewis, who teamed with Mr. Scarola in representing Mr. Stephens during the trial. Since 2000, the Sheriff’s Office has cleared 97 percent of fatal police shootings, consistently based on grossly inadequate internal investigations. One-quarter of the people shot were, like Dontrell Stephens, unarmed.
Following the 2013 Stephens shooting, Adams Lin was promoted to sergeant and assigned to instruct other officers on the proper use of force. As Mr. Scarola observed, “The message is clear: the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office turns a blind eye to excessive force.”
On the eve of trial and after two and a half years of litigation, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office tendered a settlement offer of $1.5 million, which was rejected. “That sum would not even begin to satisfy Dontrell’s unpaid medical bills let alone alleviate the economic and physical burdens that Dontrell faces for the rest of his life,” added Mr. Lewis.
“Given Dontrell’s current condition, their pitiful settlement offer is all the more objectionable,” said Mr. Scarola. “Dontrell is living in abject squalor, in a one-room apartment along with his three brothers. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor, prepares meals on a hotplate, and has no handicap-accessible facilities of any kind other than a make-shift wooden ramp to wheel him up the steps to his front door. It is heartbreaking.”
Within one hour of the tragedy, the Sherriff’s Office issued a statement in strong support of Deputy Lin. During a subsequent “investigation,” the Sherriff’s Office failed to assess objective evidence, nor did it even attempt to question Mr. Stephens about the shooting. Sheriff’s Office investigators ignored the dashboard camera video of the cell phone (rather than a gun, which Lin thought he saw) that was in Mr. Stephens’ hand from the time Deputy Lin began following him until after he was felled by the gunfire. That evidence, directly contradicting Deputy Lin’s version of the shooting, was a major focus in the civil trial. The video evidence shows all but two seconds of the four second-long face-to-face confrontation between Mr. Stephens and Deputy Lin. The video shows Mr. Stephens being shot in the back with the last of the four shots that hit him. It is available here.
“Outrages such as the shooting of Dontrell Stephens, and the subsequent official whitewash, do incalculable damage – not only to the community, but to the police themselves,” said Jack Scarola. “When confidence in the police is damaged by the abuse of police power, the police face intensified peril.”
It is a point that Mr. Scarola, himself a former prosecutor, emphasized in his closing argument at trial. There he said, “This case is about supporting the kind of policemen that everyone wants to be proud of and that we as a society need as much or more than ever before…You do good policemen no favors by stamping a seal of approval on the kind of conduct and cover-up that Adams Lin has engaged in before your very eyes.”
About Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, PA
A nationally recognized trial law firm, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. is committed to protecting and vindicating the rights of people injured through negligence, deceit and abuse of power. Over the past 40 years, the firm has represented clients in courtrooms throughout Florida and across the nation.