Judge upholds $23 million award for unarmed man deputy shot

Published May 5, 2016

WEST PALM BEACH — A federal judge Wednesday upheld a $23 million jury verdict awarded to a black man who was unarmed when he was shot and paralyzed by a sheriff's deputy.

Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer ruled that the amount awarded to Dontrell Stephens in February was not excessive. He said Stephens' disabilities and pain justify the award levied by the jury against the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and Sgt. Adams Lin.

"Simply stated, Defendants have failed to show that Stephens' award does not bear a reasonable relationship to the enormity of the harm he suffered," Seltzer wrote.

Lin, an Asian-American, shot Stephens, 23, four seconds after he stopped him in September 2013 for riding his bike into traffic. He mistook Stephens' cellphone for a gun, saying during a civil trial that concluded Feb. 3 that he feared for his life when Stephens flashed his left hand toward him. Video from Lin's dashboard camera showed the phone was in Stephens' right hand.

The jury took less than four hours to find that Lin violated Stephens' civil rights, awarding him $6.4 million for past and future medical expenses, $10.6 million for pain and suffering and $6 million for emotional distress. Stephens is paralyzed from the waist down, cannot control his bowels or bladder, has no sexual function and lives in a small apartment with his brothers, who are his caregivers.

Sheriff's Office attorneys had argued at an April 11 hearing that the award was excessive and that Stephens' attorney, Jack Scarola, had violated the judge's order during closing arguments by tying the shooting to those of other black males nationally by saying Stephens' life mattered, echoing the Black Lives Matter protests. They said that subtly stirred up anti-law-enforcement sentiment among some jurors.

But Seltzer wrote that jurors had been thoroughly vetted to ensure they held no anti-police or anti-black male attitudes. He said Scarola's closing argument was fair, noting that Scarola had first stated that Lin's life mattered and that if it had been truly threatened he had the right to defend himself with deadly force. Only then, Seltzer wrote, did Scarola note that Stephens' life also mattered, no more and no less than Lin's. Seltzer also ruled that the amount awarded was similar to other cases where the victim suffered similar injuries.

Even with judge's ruling, Stephens may never receive most of his award. Under Florida law, which limits liability judgments against government agencies, Stephens can't receive more than $200,000 unless the Legislature approves it, something it rarely does in such cases.

Scarola said he was pleased by Seltzer's decision but wasn't optimistic about Stephens' future.

"Dontrell must travel a long, difficult and hazardous road before he will receive the first dollar of compensation for the catastrophic injuries he sustained, and there are serious concerns about his ability to survive the journey," he said in an email.

The Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to an email and phone message seeking comment on whether it would appeal Seltzer's ruling.

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Lin was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Sheriff's Office and local prosecutors shortly after the shooting. He soon returned to duty and was promoted to sergeant.