Monday, May 18, 2015

Don't swing a belt at a police officer

Trial is where the action is, the culmination of all discovery and motion practice. At trial, a great case on paper can be rejected by the jury in five minutes. Sometimes the case does not even make it to the jury, as the trial court can dismiss the case mid-trial if plaintiff does not have enough evidence to win.

The case is Bennett v. Britton, a summary order decided on April 20. Plaintiff sued Town of Southampton police officers for excessive force. The trial court threw out the case under Rule 50 at the close of the plaintiff's case, ruling that Bennett's theory of the case -- that a blond-haired officer had assaulted him -- was not true because there was no blonde-haired officer on the scene of plaintiff's injuries. This decision was actually wrong, says the Court of Appeals. The jury can credit any plausible theory it wants at trial, and it can reject plaintiff's factual arguments and credit certain other facts that can still result in a plaintiff's victory. Despite that error, plaintiff still loses on appeal, and the case will never go to the jury.

One theory of the case held that Sgt. Britton struck plaintiff from behind with his knee. This theory of liability could have held water. As the Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Pooler and Carney) states:

Bennett’s treating physician testified that it would be extremely difficult for Bennett to walk with a fractured femur, yet both arresting officers testified that Bennett was able to walk to their vehicle following his arrest. But after Sergeant Britton’s knee strike, according to one officer’s testimony, Bennett was yelling in pain and had to be carried to his cell. Deciding between the two versions was a job for the jury that it did not get to do.
But the jury does not have to decide whether this version holds true because there was another reason plaintiff should have lost the trial under Rule 50: Sgt. Britton had good reason to strike plaintiff. Police officers testified that when plaintiff was directed to remove his belt at the police station, he menacingly swung the belt at an officer. Sgt. Britton struck plaintiff to protect the target of plaintiff's ire. As plaintiff cites no evidence controverting the officers' testimony or suggesting the officers were not credible on these points, he could not win the trial even had the district court allowed the case to proceed to verdict. 

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