Settlement overturned in police-involved shooting

December 14, 2009 3:11:59 PM PST
An appeals court has overturned a multi-million dollar verdict against Chicago for the police-involved shooting death of a man on a CTA platform six years ago. The shooting was captured by surveillance cameras. Two years ago, a Cook County civil court jury returned a $12.5 million verdict in the death of 23-year-old Michael Pleasance.

The case was less about whether this was a wrongful death than what would be an appropriate financial award for a life lost. The jury said $12.5 million should go to the family of Pleasance. The city argued that was too much. It appealed and Monday won an appellate court decision, not that the judgment was for too much money, but that the city got an unfair shake. And that's left attorneys for the Pleasance family scratching their heads.

Michael Pleasance was 23 when he died in March of 2003. He was shot in the head by Chicago police officer Alvin Weems who was responding to a reported fight at the CTA's 95th Street station on the Red Line.

Weems initially said he fired after he was lunged at, though security tape didn't support that contention, and Weems later acknowledged in a deposition that his action was not justified.

Two years ago, a jury awarded the Pleasance family $12.5 million in damages. The jury reached that decision without seeing the security video tape. The city had argued against its showing. But the jury was told that Weems action was "willful and wanton," a legal threshold meaning that the police officer showed a conscious disregard for the safety of Michael Pleasance.

"Because there was a videotape showing the shooting on tape, the city made a tactical decision-- rather than defend the case on liability, to simply admit their conduct was willful and wanton," said Allen Schwartz, Pleasance attorney.

But the first district appellate court ruled Monday that the jury should not have heard the willful and wanton argument -- certainly not its definition -- and the court has ordered a new trial concluding that the jury was prejudiced.

The $12.5 million that was to have been paid to the Pleasance family and their attorneys was held during the appeal. They will now ask the state Supreme Court to look at the case.

"Essentially, if the Supreme Court did not take the case, and if we would retry it on the basis of the mandate from the appellate court, the jury would never get to hear that the city in fact committed and admitted that their conduct was willful and wonton," Schwartz said. "The jury would only hear that the officer discharged his weapon, which frankly in my assessment, wouldn't even necessarily make them think the city was at fault."

Attorneys for the Pleasance family say they intend to promptly ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case. If the high court declines, the wrongful death case of Michael Pleasance will be retried.

Attempts to reach the city's law department Monday were unsuccessful.


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