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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dad Can Keep Big Jury Award for Cop Beating

(CN) - A jury properly awarded more than $101,000 to a man who testified that a Boston cop beat him up when he showed up late to return his children to the custody of his ex-wife, a federal judge ruled.

In 2004, Lionel Rodgers was legally separated from his wife, and a court order arranged for him to visit with his four children between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on a weekend day.

On Dec. 5 of that year, Rodgers picked up his children at the court-ordered location, a police station. He ultimately returned the children to the meeting spot 90 minutes late. Since Rodgers' ex-wife had complained to the police about his tardiness, Officer Gerald Cofield apparently wanted to spoke to Rodgers for the police report.

Cofield claimed that Rodgers pushed him, but a witness testified that Rodgers did not touch any of the police officers. Rodgers said Cofield grabbed him, threw him against the wall, kneed him in the stomach and threw him to the floor before arresting him.

Though the police filed assault charges against Rodgers, the case was ultimately dismissed for want of prosecution. Rodgers in the meantime took Cofield to trial for assault, false arrest and other claims. After a four-day trial, the jury found Cofield civilly liable and awarded Rodgers more than $101,000, including $26,000 for the cost of fighting the criminal charges and chiropractic care. The other portion of the award was $75,000 for future compensatory damages.

In determining that latter figure, the jury specifically asked, "Do we need to have a dollar amount or can we say something like legal fees for this trial?" The attorneys jointly responded that "it requires a dollar amount."

Fifteen minutes later, Cofield's counsel returned to the courtroom and expressed concern that the jury might mistakenly think it could award damages for the cost of bringing the civil suit. But U.S. District Judge Marianne Bowler refused to let the lawyer make an untimely new instruction to the jury.

After the jury's verdict, Cofield moved for a new trial and for a remittitur of the damages award, arguing that the $75,000 award was duplicative because it was based on the assault claim and that it erroneously compensated Rodgers for legal fees.

Bowler denied both motions, finding that Cofield could not challenge the legality of the award because the jury did not itemize either the past or future compensatory damage awards.

"Where, as here, the jury renders a general award on compensatory damages, the proper framework 'is not to parse the award into its various components, but to determine whether the award as a whole is within the universe of possible awards,'" Bowler wrote, citing precedent.

"The jury could have found that plaintiff suffered a considerable amount of emotional pain and suffering resulting from the false arrest in front of his children as well as from the assault," she added.

Bowler found that "the assumption that the award constitutes legal fees is misplaced because such fees would not constitute compensation for future damages." Additionally, "there is ample evidence to support an award of future mental pain and suffering," she concluded.

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