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Larry D. Rice, Jr v. District of Columbia

June 13, 2011

LARRY D. RICE, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

On March 7, 2011, a jury rendered a verdict in this case, finding that Officer John Stathers was liable on claims of battery, negligence, and excessive force in violation of Mr. Rice's civil rights, resulting from an arrest and shooting of Mr. Rice on April 23, 2008. The District of Columbia conceded vicarious liablity on the battery and negligence claims. After the Clerk entered Judgment, Defendants filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial on damages. As explained below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion. The Judgment in favor of Mr. Rice will be vacated in part. Judgment as a matter of law on the negligence claim will be granted in favor of Defendants, and the damages awarded to Mr. Rice will be reduced accordingly. The request for a new trial will be denied.

I. FACTS

Plaintiff Larry Rice brought this suit alleging that he was shot without provocation on April 23, 2008, by Officer Stathers when he was arrested in an abandoned house located at 5827 Fields Place, NE, Washington, D.C. The house was known as a place for drug sales. Mr. Rice testified that when he heard police officers enter the house, he quickly opened the window in a back room and began to climb out. Tr. Feb. 28, 2011 at 40-41. When he had managed to get his head and one leg out of the window, Officer Stathers entered the back room with his gun drawn. Mr. Rice testified that he continued to flee:

I made it about almost out the window. I was set in the window and faced the officer as he came in the room, and he told me to get out of the window. And I set in the window, was getting ready to scoot out anyway. He grabbed my leg, and I was shot . . . .

Id. at 41. With his gun in one hand, Officer Stathers grabbed Mr. Rice's leg with his other hand and shot Mr. Rice in the abdomen. Tr. Mar. 1, 2011 at 18. Subsequently, Mr. Rice was arrested. Mr. Rice also contended that unnamed officers kicked and beat him while he was in handcuffs. Tr. Feb. 28, 2011 at 44.

At trial, Officer Stathers and Officer Derek Starliper testified to a different version of events.*fn1 Officer Stathers indicated that when he entered the back room of the abandoned house, he saw Mr. Rice attempting to hide behind a dresser. Tr. Mar. 2, 2011 at 55-56. He told Mr. Rice that he was a police officer and ordered Mr. Rice to show his hands. Id. Mr. Rice then lunged at Officer Stathers and attempted to take Officer Stathers's gun. Id. at 57-58. Officer Stathers testified Mr. Rice repeatedly attempted to grab Officer Stathers's gun and he had to shoot Mr. Rice in self defense. Id. at 57-61. The bullet hit Mr. Rice in the abdomen, and Mr. Rice crashed partially through a rear window. Id. at 60-61.

Officer Starliper testified that he saw Officer Stathers and Mr. Rice wrestling over the gun. Tr. Mar. 3, 2011 at 98-101. Sometime during the struggle, Officer Starliper exited the house and rushed to the outside of the rear window as Mr. Rice broke through. Tr. Mar. 3, 2011 at 103. Officer Starliper pulled Mr. Rice through the window to the outside, placed him in handcuffs, and helped him walk to the front of the house. Id. at 110-14. Officer Stathers was then isolated from any further contact with Mr. Rice and activity at the scene, per standard police procedure. Tr. Mar. 2, 2011 at 62. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter to take Mr. Rice to the hospital for medical treatment.

Due to the gunshot wound, Mr. Rice sustained severe injuries including a lacerated liver, diaphragm, and lung. He underwent emergency surgery and remained in the hospital for more than one month. Some weeks later, he returned to the hospital for additional surgery related to an abdominal infection that was caused by the gunshot wound.*fn2

As a result of his injury, Mr. Rice filed this suit alleging twenty-one counts against various defendants. After a great deal of pretrial motion practice, the case proceeded to trial against Officers Stathers and Starliper and the District of Columbia on the following claims:

Count I -- Battery (against Officer Stathers);

Count II -- Battery (against Officer Starliper);

Count III -- Battery (against the District of Columbia);

Count IV -- Negligence (against Officer Stathers);

Count V -- Negligence (against the District of Columbia);

Count XI -- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (against Officer Stathers);

Count XII -- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (against Officer Starliper); Count XIII -- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (against the District of Columbia);

Count XIX -- Violation of 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure -- arrest with excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (against Officer Stathers);*fn3 and Count XX -- Violation of 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure -- arrest with excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (against Officer Starliper).

Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 29].

Trial began on February 28, 2011 and concluded on March 7, 2011 when the jury rendered a verdict. During trial and after all the evidence had been submitted, Defendants orally moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a).*fn4 See Tr. Mar. 3, 2011 at 176-182. With regard to the negligence claim, Defendants argued that "plaintiff has not alleged nor produced any evidence that there is a distinct negligent act" and that "there's no distinct negligent act apart from the excessive force claim." Id. at 176-77. The Court denied the motion and submitted the claim to the jury. Id. at 181.

In addition to challenging the jury's finding of negligence, Defendants now contend that the jury verdict improperly awards Mr. Rice double recovery. During trial, Defendants requested a jury instruction explaining the prohibition against double recovery, and the Court included this instruction. See Tr. Mar. 2, 2011 at 183; Jury Instructions [Dkt. #80] at 48. Despite this instruction, Defendants argued that the Verdict Form improperly would allow for double recovery for a single injury; the Court disagreed. See Tr. Mar. 2, 2011 at 185 (Defendants proposed a different verdict form); Tr. Mar. 3, 2011 at 174 (Court found Defendants' proposed verdict form inadequate).

The jury found Officer Stathers liable on the claims of battery, negligence, and excessive force, but found him not liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Verdict [Dkt. # 78] at 1-2. The jury did not find Officer Starliper liable on any claim. Id. The jury awarded compensatory damages in the total amount of $440,208.05, and allocated this total among the legal claims on the Verdict Form as follows:

8. If you have found that Larry Rice has proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he is entitled to compensatory damages, what compensatory damages do you award? $440,208.40

In allocating such compensatory damages:

9. If you have found that John Stathers or Derek Starliper violated Larry Rice's civil rights, what compensatory ...


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