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District of Columbia v. Bamidele

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

November 13, 2014

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., APPELLANTS,
v.
REMI BAMIDELE, et al., APPELLEES

Argued: April 2, 2013.

Page 517

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-1055-08). (Hon. Erik P. Christian, Trial Judge).

James C. McKay, Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General, with whom Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, were on the brief, for appellant District of Columbia.

James E. McCollum, Jr., for appellants Michael Callahan, Hosam Nasr, and Kathleen Wiedefeld.

Gregory L. Lattimer for appellees.

Before FISHER and MCLEESE, Associate Judges, and REID, Senior Judge. OPINION by Associate Judge FISHER. Opinion by Senior Judge REID, concurring in part and dissenting in part, at page 25.

OPINION

Page 518

Fisher, Associate Judge :

This case concerns a lawsuit based on the tortious conduct of " off duty" police officers at a restaurant. The officers assaulted a patron, and they engaged in other harmful actions. Following trial in the Superior Court, a jury awarded appellees Remi and Veronda Bamidele a total of $203,000 in compensatory and punitive damages against multiple defendants, including appellants Michael Callahan, Hosam Nasr, and Kathleen Wiedefeld, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers. The jury also found that Officers Callahan, Nasr, and Wiedefeld acted within the scope of their employment with the District of Columbia.

The individual officers filed a timely appeal. They argue that (a) the evidence did not support the jury's award of punitive damages against them, and (b) the award of compensatory damages was excessive as a matter of law. The District also noticed an appeal, and now contends that (a) the Bamideles failed to give it adequate notice of their claims in accordance with D.C. Code § 12-309 (2001), (b) the evidence failed to show that the officers acted within the scope of their employment, and (c) it cannot be held liable for punitive damages.

We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to reduce the compensatory damages award. Moreover, there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Officers Callahan, Nasr, and Wiedefeld acted with malice and willful disregard of the safety and rights of others, thus justifying the jury's decision to award punitive damages against them. We note, however, that the trial court's order of judgment does not set forth the

Page 519

amount of punitive and compensatory damages that the jury awarded against each individual defendant. We agree with the District that, on the evidence presented, it cannot be held liable for compensatory or punitive damages.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment against the District of Columbia. We affirm the judgments against the individual officers, but remand with instructions to amend and reenter the judgment order to fully reflect the jury's verdicts against them.

I. FACTUAL SUMMARY

The police officers disputed much of the factual summary which follows, but we are obliged to view the record in the light most favorable to Mr. and Mrs. Bamidele. See, e.g., Giordano v. Sherwood, 968 A.2d 494, 497 (D.C. 2009); Croley v. Republican Nat'l Comm., 759 A.2d 682, 690 (D.C. 2000). Viewed in that light, the testimony and other evidence presented at trial revealed that on the evening and early morning hours of February 2-3, 2007, Officers Callahan, Nasr, and Wiedefeld, off-duty and not in uniform, went to Clyde's Restaurant for drinks. When Clyde's closed, the officers moved to the Szechuan Gallery restaurant, where they were able to obtain more alcohol after lawful serving hours ended. The Bamideles were already in the restaurant when the officers arrived. Officers Callahan and Nasr were carrying their service weapons, despite an MPD policy prohibiting the consumption of alcohol while carrying a weapon.

At some point after the officers arrived, a confrontation arose between them and a group of unidentified men. How this confrontation began was a matter of dispute at trial. According to the Bamideles, Officer Wiedefeld appeared to be flirting with the unidentified men, which evidently angered Officers Nasr and Callahan. The officers and the unidentified men began throwing food and other items between their tables. During this exchange, Officer Callahan threw a plate, which shattered against the wall behind Mrs. Bamidele's head, having almost struck her.

But according to the officers, the dispute began when one of the unidentified men sexually assaulted Officer Wiedefeld. They testified that, as she was walking from the bathroom to her table, one of the men grabbed her " rear." After she returned to the officers' table and told Officers Nasr and Callahan what had happened, the unidentified men began throwing food. Then, when a piece of broccoli struck Officer Callahan, he " lost his cool" and he approached the men, identifying himself and Officers Wiedefeld and Nasr as police officers. This precipitated a " shoving match" between Officer Callahan and one of the men, which quickly devolved into " wrestling." Officer Callahan and the man grappled with each other, knocking into and turning over tables in the crowded restaurant.

Observing the encounter, the Bamideles decided to leave the restaurant. As they made their way out, Mr. Bamidele stopped to complain to Officer Callahan about the plate that almost struck Mrs. Bamidele. Officer Callahan readily apologized. But, as Mr. Bamidele and Officer Callahan were speaking, someone[1] sitting at the

Page 520

officers' table stood up and punched Mr. Bamidele in the face.

According to the Bamideles, the officers then viciously assaulted Mr. Bamidele. Officer Nasr stood up from the table, called Mr. Bamidele an " [a]scidia moota" [2] and began beating him. When Mrs. Bamidele tried to intervene, the officers knocked her to the floor. They continued to batter Mr. Bamidele, knocking him to the floor and stomping on him. As Mr. Bamidele climbed back to his feet, the officers shoved him against a wall; Officer Wiedefeld " pinned down" Mr. Bamidele and the other officers continued to beat him. Mrs. Bamidele begged the officers to stop, crying out, " Don't do this. Don't do this. Stop it." Unable to interrupt the assault, she fled to the restaurant entrance, where she called out for help.

Officer Phillip Henderson responded to reports of an altercation within the restaurant. When he entered, he noticed that the restaurant was in disarray: tables had been overturned, food and plates littered the floor, and a " plate was stuck in the wall of the restaurant." He also saw an ongoing " physical dispute" or " assault." Officers Callahan and Wiedefeld were holding Mr. Bamidele against a wall. After Officer Henderson was unable to draw their attention by slapping his baton against a wooden banister, he physically intervened and pulled the officers off Mr. Bamidele. Officer Henderson described Officer Callahan as " loud," " bouncy," " upset," and " uncontrollable" while he was being interviewed by Captain Brown, who had arrived at the scene. Sergeant Harpe, another officer who had responded, eventually arrested Officer Callahan for assault, a charge that was later dismissed.

Roughly one year after the assault, the Bamideles brought suit against the District of Columbia, alleging, among other things, assault and battery. They later amended their complaint to add the three officers and the Szechuan Gallery Restaurant as defendants. The lawsuit proceeded to trial, after which the jury returned a verdict in the Bamideles' favor. In total, the jury awarded them $203,000 in damages, including $70,000 in compensatory damages and $110,000 in punitive damages against the individual officers.[3] The jury also found that the officers acted in the scope of their employment.

Following trial, the District moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative for a new trial. It contended that the evidence failed to show that the individual officers acted in the scope of their employment. It also requested a remittitur, arguing that the compensatory damages were excessive. Finally, the District asserted that the award of punitive damages was improper as a matter of public policy, and that the officers did not act with malicious intent.

Page 521

The Superior Court denied the District's motion. Concluding that there was evidence to show the officers had been acting in the scope of their employment, the court cited " testimonial evidence in the trial record: that the officers intended--at least in part--to take official police action in response to an assault against one of them." As to the District's request for a remittitur, the court held that " [t]he compensatory damage verdict . . . is well inside the 'maximum limit of a reasonable range' for a jury to award[,]" given " the harm suffered by [the Bamideles], including physical beating, humiliation, and emotional distress." The trial court rejected the District's arguments as to punitive damages, finding, among other things, that " the award here will tend to discourage the conduct demonstrated by the officers in this case, which will undoubtedly redound to the public benefit."

II. The Officers' Liability

The individual officers claim that the awards of compensatory damages are excessive and that the trial court should have granted a remittitur. They also maintain that there is no basis for the punitive damages awards, because the Bamideles offered no evidence to show that the officers acted with malice. We disagree.

A. Compensatory Damages

Under our case law, if the trial court determines that a particular damages award is " beyond all reason, or . . . is so great as to shock the conscience," it may require the plaintiff to accept a reduced award or face a new trial. Scott v. Crestar Fin. Corp., 928 A.2d 680, 688 (D.C. 2007) (quoting Wingfield v. Peoples Drug Store, 379 A.2d 685, 687 (D.C. 1977)). In determining whether such a reduction is appropriate, the trial court should consider not only the size of the award, but also whether the decision of the jury was based on " passion, prejudice, mistake, or [the] consideration of improper factors . . . ." Scott, 928 A.2d at 688. We " will not reverse the trial ...


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