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Court says no to $22.4 million award for man paralyzed by Army veteran deputy in Florida

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Lisa J. Huriash
Sun Sentinel

An appeals court has thrown out a $22.4 million jury award to a black man who was unarmed when he was shot and paralyzed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on claims by 24-year-old Dontrell Stephens. It was the largest jury verdict against the Sheriff’s Office in the history of the agency, attorneys said.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Adams Lin shot Stephens in September 2013, after stopping Stephens for riding his bicycle erratically in traffic.

In their ruling released Wednesday, two of the three appeals judges agreed that jury instructions in the 2016 civil trial were erroneous.

The court ruled the flawed jury instruction deprived Lin of the opportunity to have one of his defenses — qualified immunity — properly considered by the judge and jury. Qualified immunity generally shields government officials, including police officers, from liability for civil damages if they made a reasonable mistake.

Stephens’ attorney, Jack Scarola, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision.

“We have every intention of continuing to pursue our rights … to exhaust all legal means to be sure Dontrell Stephens is fully compensated for the tragic injury he suffered,” Scarola said. “If that eventually means retrying this case before another jury, we are ready, willing and able to do that.

“We are confident that no jury will ever find that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was justified in shooting this unarmed bicyclist in the back.”

Stephens was awarded $23.1 million in February 2016, including $10.6 million for pain and suffering and $6.7 million for emotional distress. His attorneys told the jury he suffers from depression, pain and bed sores. After the jury verdict, attorneys agreed to reduce the amount to $22.4 million. The judgment, which was not paid, has also been accumulating interest since 2016, Scarola said Wednesday.

A dashboard camera video from the Sept. 13, 2013, shooting shows Stephens backing away from Lin when he fired. Stephens held a cellphone but no weapon.

Lin testified he saw a dark object in Stephens’ hand that he thought was a gun, putting him in fear for his life.

Race was an issue in the case, though Lin testified during the investigation that he had not racially profiled Stephens. He said he was suspicious of Stephens and did not recognize him from the neighborhood.

“[Lin] never shot at any black man before, he never shot at any white man before. This is the only time this ever happened to him,” Summer Barranco, one of the attorneys for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, told jurors during the trial.

Sheriff’s officials said they were pleased with the appeals court ruling.

Lin, who is Asian-American, is “a minority himself,” officials said in a written statement, and “had worked in the high crime neighborhood where the incident occurred for many years [but] had never used deadly force prior to his unfortunate encounter with Mr. Stephens.”

The statement also said: “Sgt. Lin then saved Mr. Stephens’ life due to the fact that he had extensive medical training as a result of serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army while on deployment in Afghanistan in 2008. He did so by rendering first aid to Mr. Stephens until EMS arrived.”

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