A jury has awarded $10 million to the family of a woman who was stabbed to death after police officers allegedly failed to enforce a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, leading one defense attorney to predict that Connecticut police departments will face a wave of lawsuits by domestic violence victims.
“When you think of [the potential] exposure to individual police officers and municipalities, it’s mind-boggling,” said Scott Karsten, of Karsten & Tallberg in West Hartford. Karsten said he “absolutely” could see the $10 million verdict leading to additional lawsuits being filed by plaintiffs lawyers.
Karsten represented the town of Plainville in the recently decided case. He said state judges had previously dismissed lawsuits claiming police officers had failed to act in a timely manner on behalf of domestic violence victims who had obtained protective orders.
“Prior to this case, all have been decided in favor of defendants on motions to strike or a motion for summary judgment, usually on the basis of governmental immunity,” Karsten said. “It’s the first decision [of this type] anybody was aware of, including the judge, under circumstances such as this.” Karsten intends to challenge the verdict.
Tiana Notice was 25 years old in 2009 when she was stabbed to death outside her apartment. She was stabbed 20 times by the ex-boyfriend, James Carter II of Bloomfield, who is now serving a 60-year prison sentence.
Notice had been receiving emails she believed were from Carter, but were sent from an email account bearing a woman’s name. Carter claimed this was his new girlfriend, but police eventually concluded the account and girlfriend were fabricated to circumvent the restraining order barring Carter from contacting Notice.
On the day of the killing, Notice reported a particularly disturbing email. The ex-boyfriend told Notice not to report the email to police, but she did anyhow.
A Plainville police officer responding to Notice’s complaint, Mark Connoy, later told Carter police knew about the email. Furious, Carter that night took a knife and drove to Notice’s apartment complex. He called locksmiths to say he was locked out of his apartment in an effort to get into Notice’s home. Though that effort was unsuccessful, he waited for Notice to return home and then attacked her.
Notice had felt so threatened by Carter she had her father set up a surveillance camera outside her apartment. The juries at both the civil and the criminal trials watched video showing Notice fleeing from Carter. The stabbing took place out of the camera’s view, but screams could be heard.
The immunity case was placed on the Hartford Superior Court complex litigation docket. The trial, before Judge Grant Miller, lasted four weeks, taking up most of April. The jury deliberated for two days before siding with the family of Notice, whose estate is being administered by her father, Alvin. The jury awarded $10,008,085.
Connoy, and his boss, Sgt. Richard Marques, were both found negligent. While Connoy had tipped off Carter about the email, Marques acknowledged he never read the message before the stabbing occurred.
“We believe the lawsuit here was vindicated by the careful work of the jury in assessing the facts and the law,” said one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, Thomas Murphy, of Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy in Hartford. “We view this as justice for Tiana, who didn’t get it while she was alive.”
The jury apportioned some of the blame to the Waterbury Police Department. Notice had contacted officers there the day before the murder because Carter kept calling and harassing her at her Waterbury workplace.
Murphy, along with James Healy, of the same firm, settled their claim against Waterbury prior to trial for an undisclosed amount. The civil trial jury put 40 percent of the blame on Waterbury police, but the department won’t have to pay any money beyond the original settlement.
Karsten said he will file posttrial motions to have the verdict vacated. If unsuccessful, he intends to appeal on grounds of governmental immunity. Generally, public employees are protected from lawsuits based on decisions they make in the course of doing their jobs. One exception is if their actions subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.
Karsten said that was not the case here. “There was no apparent risk of physical injury to the victim at any time prior to the murder,” he said.
Murphy strongly disagrees. The plaintiff’s lawyer maintains that police knew of Carter’s emails leading up to the murder, and that was sufficient to fulfill the imminent harm test. “Our claim from the beginning has been that we should get that exception [to the government immunity doctrine] and that is what the jury found,” said Murphy.
But Karsten said the immunity doctrine was applied inconsistently during the case. The plaintiff had included the Bloomfield Police Department in the initial lawsuit. Carter lived in Bloomfield, and Notice had also told officers there about him contacting her despite the order of protection. The judge dismissed the claim against Bloomfield after the defense filed a motion for summary judgment.
However, the judge denied a similar motion on behalf of the Plainville Police Department. Karsten argues that Plainville police were no more culpable than those in Bloomfield. “The only difference between the town of Plainville and its officers and the town of Bloomfield and its officers was a question of degree,” said Karsten. “From our perspective, questions of degree ought to be decided in favor of the defendants on the ground of governmental immunity.”
The stabbing of Notice was one of several violent acts that prompted state lawmakers to approve tougher domestic violence laws in recent years. New measures allow for electronic monitoring of domestic violence offenders; require police to arrest an individual who assaults someone they are dating; expands the list of crimes for which a judge can issue criminal protective orders; and requires domestic violence offenders to surrender firearms. Alvin Notice, the victim’s father, was among those active in seeking the reforms.
Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said her organization has closely followed the Notice case. She said she’s unsure whether the jury’s verdict might lead to additional similar lawsuits against police departments, but she hopes the recent reforms will help prevent what happened to Notice.
“I don’t think anyone knows whether or not this is going to impact complaints in one way or another,” said Jarmoc, who is not a lawyer. “This is a very serious incident that happened to a bright young woman who had all the potential in the world. Clearly, she was doing all she could given the constraints of the criminal justice system to stay safe.”•