St. Joseph County will not have to pay a $56.5 million verdict levied against two former prison guards responsible for the death of a man in their custody. Federal jurors awarded $29 million in compensatory damages and $27.5 million in punitive damages to the family of Christopher Moreland, who died after being arrested for drunk driving in 1997.
The guards allegedly threw Moreland headfirst into a shower stall, turned hot water on him and pepper-sprayed him before putting him, unconscious, in a restraint chair.
After the former guards were acquitted of criminal charges in 2000, Moreland’s parents filed a civil suit and won. The guards did not have the funds or insurance to cover the damage award.
Moreland family attorneys then sued St. Joseph County under a change in the state law that took effect a year after the jury verdict. The law requires municipalities that defend employees against lawsuits, or that have the opportunities to do so, to pay damages for acts committed by employees. St. Joseph County paid for the guards’ defense but not their appeal.
U.S. District Court Judge Philip Simon found that the county was not liable. “By reading the statute to apply to any situation where the public entity had the ‘opportunity to defend’ regardless of whether it specifically chooses to take on the defense, the court would open the floodgates to ongoing state indemnity obligations,” he ruled.
Moreland’s family plans to appeal.
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