Nick Ellis and Caroline Mackie from the Raleigh office of Poyner Spruill, successfully defended Sheriff Donnie Harrison, the Sheriff of Wake County, and three of his detention officers in an excessive force claim based on alleged violations of 42 USC § 1983, in addition to state law claims of battery, negligence, and negligent supervision. The case was tried in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in March, 2015 and in a trial that lasted eight days, the 12-member jury returned a unanimous verdict for the defendants on all claims. The case involved “excessive force” claims by the plaintiff, a pre-trial detainee in the Wake County jail, against detention officers where he claimed he was the subject of excessive force on three separate occasions and on each of those occasions, he sustained some degree of personal injury. While Plaintiff was taken to the Emergency Room of the local hospital on two of the occasions, none of his injuries were life threatening nor permanent.
The parties engaged in extensive discovery and Plaintiff, in particular, deposed approximately 15 officers in the Sheriff’s Department. There was an interlocutory appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals involving qualified immunity, which had been denied by the trial court. That denial was upheld by the appellate court, which forced the parties to try the case.
Immediately prior to the trial, the Plaintiff’s final demand to settle the case was $225,000.00. The Defendants had made an offer of $26,000.00 in a mediation with the appellate court, but the parties were unable to settle the case.
One of the key issues in the case was the prior conduct of one of the detention officers when he had used force against inmates on several prior occasions, which had resulted in significant injuries. However, that prior conduct was only relevant to the negligent supervision claim and the defendants moved to bifurcate that claim from the initial phase of the trial because there would be no need to have a jury consider the negligent supervision claim if the defendants prevailed on the underlying Constitutional and other state law claims. United States District Court Judge James Fox, appointed by President Regan, agreed to bifurcate the case, although he said this was the first trial he had ever bifurcated in almost 30 years on the bench.
Both parties utilized expert witnesses on the topic of subject control and a key part of the evidence at the trial was video of two of the three instances, which was repeatedly played for the jury.
After approximately five hours of deliberation, the jury rendered a unanimous verdict for the Defendants as to all claims, which resulted in the court dismissing the negligent supervision claim.
For Wake County, the second largest county in North Carolina, this was reportedly the first jury trial it or its agencies had gone through in over 20 years.