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District of Columbia v. Chinn

December 31, 2003

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
ADRIAN CHINN, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (No. CA-2616-99) (Hon. Rhonda Reid Winston, Trial Judge)

Before Terry, Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge

Argued February 12, 2003

Alleging that District of Columbia police officers used excessive force against him in effecting an arrest, Adrian Chinn sued for civil rights violations, assault and battery, negligence, and related torts. The jury found in his favor only on the negligence count. On appeal, the District argues that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on negligence when the only basis for such a claim was the use of excessive force, involving an intentional battery. We hold that since Chinn did not present evidence of a specific and distinct claim of negligence, the trial court erred in instructing the jury on negligence in addition to the instruction on assault and battery. However, considering the presence in our case law of language which could understandably have led Chinn to seek inclusion of a negligence count and the trial court to have given the instruction and the possibility of jury confusion that may have resulted therefrom, we vacate the negligence verdict and remand for a new trial on the assault and battery count alone.

I.

A vehicle driven by Chinn was pulled over by District police officers early in the morning of April 17, 1998. An altercation ensued between Chinn and five officers. At trial, Chinn testified that he refused to exit the car and was pulled out by officers who then repeatedly beat him with a blunt object about the back, head, and face for half an hour. Chinn's father, who witnessed the incident, testified that Chinn ran from the police, but confirmed the testimony about the beating.

The police officers testified Chinn was pulled over for speeding, having illegally tinted windows, and because they suspected the vehicle was stolen based on a broken window and what turned out to be an erroneous vehicle tag check. The officers testified that Chinn refused to exit the car and was extremely combative, which led to his eventual arrest. Chinn had to be subdued with force, but the police testified that they never used a weapon.

On April 16, 1999, Chinn filed a complaint against four of the officers involved in the altercation and the District of Columbia (collectively "the District"). Following the presentation of evidence, Chinn asked the trial court to instruct the jury on the intentional tort claims (assault, battery, false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unreasonable seizure, and arrest without probable cause), civil rights violations, and negligence. The negligence claim was based on a violation of the standard of care set out in D.C. Code §4-176 (1994) (now codified as §5-123.02 (2001)), which reads: "Any officer who uses unnecessary and wanton severity in arresting or imprisoning any person shall be deemed guilty of assault and battery, and, upon conviction, punished therefor." Over the District's objection, the trial court gave a negligence instruction, noting there "is a theory that even if one believes that the officers' actions were intentional that they could have mistakenly believed that they needed to exert the amount of force that they did and that could be negligence." In its instruction the court explained that a violation of §4-176 constitutes evidence of negligence, but did not necessarily confine negligence to that possibility. *fn1 The jury found for the defendants on all claims except the negligence claim. On that claim, the jury found that two of the officers, Hubbard and Durand, had been negligent and awarded $40,000 in compensatory damages.

II.

A.

An individual who has been injured by a District police officer may sue under one or more common law theories of legal liability such as assault and battery or negligence, as Chinn did in the instant case. See, e.g., Holder v. District of Columbia, 700 A.2d 738, 741 (D.C. 1997). In the case of assault and battery, a plaintiff can recover for assault by proving "intentional and unlawful attempt or threat, either by words or acts, to do physical harm to the plaintiff," and for battery by proving an "intentional act that causes harmful or offensive bodily contact." Id. Usually these technical requirements of assault and battery are satisfied, such as here where there is no question that a battery occurred, *fn2 and the outcome of the case turns on the defense of privilege:

A police officer has a qualified privilege to use reasonable force to effect an arrest, provided that the means employed are not "in excess of those which the actor reasonably believes to be necessary."

Id. (quoting Etheredge v. District of Columbia, 635 A.2d 908, 916 (D.C. 1993)). "The reasonableness of a particular act of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20-20 vision of hindsight." Etheredge at 916 (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989)). *fn3 Under the rule of the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 133 (1965), liability is imposed only for the harm done by the use of such force as was excessive, unless the harm cannot be differentiated.

"In order to prevail in a negligence action, the plaintiff must prove the 'applicable standard of care, a deviation from that standard of care by the defendant, and a causal relationship between that deviation and the plaintiff's injury.'" Holder at 741 (quoting Etheredge at 917). Moreover, the District is vicariously liable, under the doctrine of respondeat ...


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