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By Bill Hoagland
I have been practicing law a long time and while I generally have faith in the jury system, there are some jury verdicts that are real “head scratchers” for me; there are times when I just don’t understand what the jury was thinking (or smoking). The most recent “head scratcher” is the case of Dudley v City of Chicago.
This is a case against the City of Chicago Police Department for injuries sustained in a police/civilian confrontation. Generally, in order to recover against a police department in Illinois, the plaintiff must prove that the police acted in a willful and wanton manner, meaning in a way that goes beyond simple negligence. The appellate court in this case went into an agonizing discussion about willful and wanton conduct but we will spare you having to sort through all that; think of it as simply comparing the conduct of the police and the criminals involved in this case.
Here are the facts, as laid out in the appellate court decision of this case which was rendered last week: John Givens, Leland Dudley and David Strong decided to break into an electronic supply store in Chicago in the middle of the night; they were not there to compare stereos—they were there to steal. While they were inside the store, a tenant upstairs heard them and called the police. The police surrounded the building and repeatedly announced to the burglars that they were surrounded and that they should surrender peacefully. The episode was video-taped so there is no question that the burglars knew they were surrounded. Despite this, they elected to get in a van located inside the building, crash it through a heavy garage door and make their getaway in the van.
As the three men crashed through the garage door in the van, which was completely unexpected, they narrowly missed running over one of the officers who was standing in front of the garage door. In fact, other officers thought that the burglars had run over and killed the officer standing in front of the garage. As it turns out, the burglars were apparently unarmed but the police had no reason to know if they were armed or not when this mid-night debacle started. A total of 76 shots were fired by the police. One of the burglars, David Strong, was shot and killed in the incident and the other two were wounded. Givens and Dudley were subsequently tried for murder arising out of the commission of a felony, both were convicted and both were sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. Those convictions were affirmed on appeal. Then, to the surprise of many, Strong’s estate, plus both Givens and Dudley, sued the City of Chicago for injuries and death resulting from the alleged use of excessive force by the Chicago Police Department.
At the conclusion of this trial, the jury awarded the estate of David Strong $1,999,999.00 and reduced it by half due to his comparative fault. In essence, the jury gave Strong’s estate a net award of a million dollars because in comparing the conduct of Strong and the police, they thought his conduct in crashing through the garage door in a car was not as “willful and wanton” as the conduct of the police in shooting at the car as it crashed through the garage door. (Because of some legal technicalities, the injury claims of Givens and Dudley were remanded to the trial court and will be retried at a future date.)
This jury verdict is a head scratcher for me and one would hope this verdict doesn’t set a disturbing precedent for an increasingly violent City of Chicago.
In fact, I speculate about a possible future Chicago TV ad: “If you have been injured in a shoot-out with the Chicago Police Department, you may be entitled to significant compensation. Call our office right now and get the compensation you deserve.” Do you think that speculation is too far-fetched? Maybe not.
• Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.