It’s been two years since a wrongful death lawsuit was filed on behalf of Alton Sterling’s children, and its day in court is still eight months away.
But before the April 20 trial approaches, attorneys for both sides are hoping the court can provide clarity on a central question: What exactly is the city-parish’s liability?
The Parish Attorney’s Office has filed a motion asking the court to recognize a state law that caps liability in personal injury and wrongful death claims against a municipality at $500,000. So, in the event that damages are awarded, the city-parish maintains its liability should be limited to $1 million—$500,000 in wrongful death and $500,000 in personal injury.
In an interesting twist, however, plaintiff attorneys and those representing the two police officers who are co-defendants in the case find themselves on the same side—in this one instance—as both argue the city is also responsible for liability on behalf of officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake.
The attorneys cite the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police union, which maintains the city is responsible for indemnifying officers while they are acting in the “course and scope” of their employment.
“We’re seeking declaratory judgment from the court (to recognize the city’s indemnification obligation) so all parties know going into the trial who’s responsible for what,” says attorney Stephen Carleton, representing Salamoni.
A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21, at which the court is expected to provide clarity on the city’s obligation regarding the union contract and the state cap.
Plaintiff attorneys, meanwhile, say there’s another reason why the city’s liability is not confined to the cap defined in state law—the lawsuit involves state claims as well as federal civil rights claims, and the state cap does not cover federal claims, says attorney Michael Adams, with the Decuir, Clark and Adams law firm, representing Sterling’s children.
“The city is saying its greatest exposure is the (state) cap,” Adams says. “The lunacy of that argument is that state legislation cannot cap what the U.S. Congress has done.”
Adams adds his clients have tried to settle with the city-parish twice, asking for an undisclosed amount, but each time the city did not respond.
The city-parish does not comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson says.
If the case does make it trial, Carleton says he has strong doubts that any liability will be found and even stronger doubts that punitive damages will be awarded. He points to the federal and state prosecutors’ decisions not to charge the officers in Sterling’s death.
“In my opinion, there’s no way anything that happened that evening could rise to punitive damages,” Carleton says.
But Adams notes this is a civil case, not criminal, so the burden of proof is lower. He also says BRPD Chief Murphy Paul’s recent press conference, in which he apologized for the Sterling incident, could support their argument that the city is liable for his death. The attorneys plan to start deposing witnessed in September, including the chief.
Attorneys on both sides note the environment of extreme divisiveness in the city is one reason the matter might not be resolved until the trial. Carleton called the opposing positions “intractable,” either people think there’s clear liability or none at all.
“We’re very much divided as a city with way we look at things.” Adams adds. “If you listened to chief’s comments to Rotary, Baton Rouge is very much still racially divided on this issue.”