By Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post
A federal jury has ordered the D.C. government to pay about $242,000 to the family of a man who was killed in March 2002 by an off-duty D.C. police officer.
The jury found that Officer Marcus Gaines was negligent in the steps leading to the shooting of Brian Hundley, 41, in a Northwest Washington parking lot. But it rejected the family's bid for more damages, finding that Gaines did not abuse Hundley, violate his civil rights or inflict emotional distress upon him when he killed him with a single gunshot to the chest.
Hundley, a dental student, was unarmed when he was shot in the 600 block of N Street NW. His family filed suit in U.S. District Court two weeks after the shooting. This was the second time the case went to trial; the first trial ended with a hung jury.
According to evidence presented at the retrial, Gaines was walking from the parking lot to his apartment with his brother about 1:30 a.m. March 23, 2002, when he came upon a car with Hundley and a woman inside. The car backed up quickly into Gaines's path, and Gaines yelled for the driver to be careful because "you almost hit a law enforcement officer."
The car started to move toward him, Gaines testified, and he pulled his service revolver and ordered Hundley to get out of the car.
What happened next was the crux of the trial. Gaines said Hundley got out of the car and put his hands on the side of the vehicle, as ordered. But then, according to Gaines, Hundley jerkily put one hand behind his back and lunged at him. Hundley family attorneys said Gaines fabricated that threatening move to justify the shooting.
In their verdict, jurors did not accept Gaines's account of Hundley's behavior. The decision Monday followed an eight-day trial and four days of deliberations.
The jury awarded Hundley's estate $50,000 for the pain and suffering he experienced and $25,000 for some wages he would have made if he had lived. The jury also ordered the D.C. government to pay $56,400 to Hundley's wife, Lynne Hundley, from whom he was estranged at the time, and $111,000 to his son Edmund, now 7.
Although the verdict was a victory on paper, Hundley's relatives and lawyers called the amount of the award a bitter insult to Hundley's life and said they will appeal.
"It really defies logic," said Carl Hundley, who brought the wrongful death suit on behalf of his late brother. "They found the [traffic] stop was negligent, they found my brother didn't threaten the officer. One is left to wonder if they are just deciding his life had no value."
The family's attorney, Gregory L. Lattimer, called the award a "travesty. . . . A 41-year-old man dies at the police's hands without threatening him or doing anything wrong, and his life is worth $241,000. How are the police allowed to get away with this?"
Gaines is assigned to the 3rd Police District. A spokeswoman for the D.C. attorney general's office, which defended the department, said that the jury erred in siding with the family and that the city might seek to overturn the award.
"Although the attorney general's office believes the court's finding of negligence is contrary to law, the District does fully understand the jury's desire to compensate the Hundley family for their tragic loss," said spokeswoman Traci Hughes.