TAMPA — When it was finally over — eight long years after his son’s death, six years after litigation began and four hours of jury deliberation Thursday — Andrew Joseph Jr. stepped out of the federal courthouse in Tampa with his arms outstretched, one leg raised in the air and screamed.
For him, it was a long-awaited “day of vindication,” he said.
A jury awarded a total of $15 million in damages Thursday to the family of Andrew Joseph III in the federal wrongful death lawsuit against Hillsborough County sheriff’s officials. That total was split evenly between Joseph Jr. and Deanna Joseph, the 14-year-old’s mother.
”We are elated at this moment,” Deanna Joseph said.
The 10-person panel delivered its verdict just after 6 p.m., deciding that Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister should compensate the parents for the loss of their son, who was killed when he was struck by an SUV on Interstate 4 after being kicked out of the Florida State Fair.
The jury answered yes on the question of negligence on the part of the sheriff in Andrew Joseph III’s death, but it also found teen was negligent as well. The jury assigned 90% of the negligence to the sheriff and 10% to Joseph III.
Jurors answered no to the question of whether retired Cpl. Mark Clark committed any acts violating Andrew Joseph III’s rights when he first detained the teen at the fair.
The defense can appeal the ruling.
Family members and those supporting them entered the courtroom around 6 p.m. Many sat holding each other, and heavy exhales could be heard when the judge read the verdict.
There were protestors on the street outside the courthouse throughout the day in support of the Joseph family, and they all swarmed around the family when they exited the building. Joseph Jr. led chants as he spoke to the crowd. There were lots of hugs, shouting and tears.
“That child didn’t do nothing wrong,” Joseph Jr. said. “15 million put some respect on it.”
Family members said some of the money awarded to them would be donated to the Andrew Joseph Foundation.
The verdict Thursday punctuated more than six years of civil litigation in which attorneys for the 14-year-old’s parents argued that sheriff’s deputies violated their son’s rights by detaining and ejecting him from the Florida State Fair and ultimately set in motion the events that led him to be struck by an SUV on Interstate 4.
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“They owed Andrew a duty not to place him in a dangerous situation, and they did not do that,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Chris Anulewicz said in closing arguments.
Attorneys for the defendants, Chronister and Clark, countered that it was the teen’s own decisions that got him killed.
“We’re not devaluing the loss of the Joseph family,” attorney Robert Fulton told the jury. “Nothing that has been presented over the last eight days has changed that fact that Cpl. Clark did not cause Andrew injury and the sheriff did not cause his death.”
The case centered on what occurred in and around the state fairgrounds on the night of Feb. 7, 2014. It was Student Day at the fair, a tradition in which local schoolchildren are given free admission.
Andrew Joseph attended with several other children, who were dropped off by a friend’s mother at the main entrance gate.
Soon after they arrived, there was what deputies described as a disturbance on the midway.
In court, a former deputy used the term “wilding” to describe groups of kids gathering together in large groups before making a “mad dash,” knocking over patrons and stealing from vendors.
Sheriff’s deputies detained numerous young people.
Andrew Joseph saw deputies escorting two of his friends and began to run after them, according to witnesses. One boy dropped a hat and Joseph picked it up and tried to hand it to him.
It was then that Andrew Joseph was detained.
An ejection form filled out by deputies gave the only details: “running through the mid-way causing disorderly conduct.”
Lawyers for Andrew Joseph Jr. and Deanna Joseph argued that his detention was unconstitutional.
He was taken to a processing area, where he was held for about 40 minutes. He and the others who’d been detained were then driven to the edge of the fairgrounds, near Orient Road, and released.
Corey Thornton, who was 12 years old at the time, was the last person with Andrew Joseph that night. Now 21, he testified that they struggled to find their way back to the main gate, where they hoped to meet their ride home.
Thornton said an unidentified deputy near Gate 4, from which they’d been ejected, refused to let them walk back through the fair, threatened to arrest them and told them that the only thing separating them from the main gate was the interstate.
They walked back to Orient Road, then went north and through the Hard Rock Casino before they ended up trying to cross the busy highway to reach the fairgrounds.
They made it across, but then Andrew Joseph said they needed to go back. As he dashed back toward the casino, the teen was struck and killed.
“A kid should never have been put in this position,” Anulewicz told the jury. “He should not have been put in the position of trying to do this on his own.”
In his closing, Fulton reiterated several points he and the other defense lawyers noted throughout the trial. They included Andrew Joseph’s refusal of an offer for a ride from his football coach, who came there to pick up some of the other children who’d been kicked out. Joseph, the coach testified, told him he wanted to meet his friend’s mother at the main gate, as he’d planned.
The defense also highlighted more than 20 phone calls Joseph made after his detention. None were to his parents.
“It was not foreseeable that someone would leave and enter the interstate,” Fulton said.
Shortly before the trial started, attorneys announced a settlement agreement between the Josephs and the Florida State Fair Authority, details of which were not disclosed. That left Chronister and Clark as the only remaining defendants.