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Despite the misconduct of several of its employees, the city of Houston cannot be held liable for what happened to a woman left a paraplegic by a 1980 shooting, a federal appeals court said on Jan. 17 when it reversed a more than $26 million verdict against the city. Barbra Piotrowski twice sued the city, claiming that Houston police failed to warn her about a murder-for-hire contract put out against her allegedly by a former boyfriend, multimillionaire Richard Minns. Piotrowski’s first suit was dismissed by a federal trial court on the ground that her complaint was time-barred. She filed a new suit in 1995, and a federal jury in Houston found in 1998 that the city was liable for her shooting. U.S. District Judge David Hittner presided over the trial. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in Piotrowski v. City of Houston, said there was insufficient evidence to support the woman’s claim. In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled in favor of the city. “This is a disturbing case — both in terms of what happened to Piotrowski and how members of the Houston Police Department conducted themselves before and after the shooting,” Judge Edith Jones wrote in the opinion in which she was joined by Judge Rhesa Barksdale. Judge James L. Dennis dissented and reserved the right to file a dissenting opinion at a later date. Jones noted in her opinion that Piotrowski was shot by a hit man hired by Minns’ private investigator, Dudley Bell, who also contacted friends in the Houston police and fire departments to harass her before the shooting. The opinion also cited testimony by a Houston police officer, John Liles, that the police failed to warn Piotrowski when the homicide division received a tip about Bell’s efforts to hire a contract killer. However, the court held that the evidence does not support municipal liability or liability based on a state-created danger theory. It also held that the statute of limitations on Piotrowski’s equal protection claim had run out. “I think it is a complete win,” says Houston lawyer Lynne Liberato, who represents the city in the appeal. “It sets out very clear standards for when a civil rights claim can be brought against a city and recognizes that a city cannot be held liable for the individual actions of its employees,” Liberato, a partner in Haynes and Boone, says. But Dallas solo David M. Pruessner, an appellate lawyer representing Piotrowski, says, “The court just substituted its opinion for that of the jury.” The court disagreed with the jury on how to review the evidence and put its own interpretation on the evidence, Pruessner says, adding that he will seek a rehearing by the full 5th Circuit. If that motion fails, Pruessner says he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marilyn Lahr, another Dallas solo who was one of Piotrowski’s attorneys for the 1998 trial, says she is “stunned” by the 5th Circuit’s ruling, which she says is not based on the evidence. “When someone can hire police officers and use that to escalate harassment and violence against someone else, that’s appalling,” Lahr says. “This woman has had the system fail her over and over and over again,” Lahr says. “When we won the trial … I thought for once the system was going to come through.” With the 5th Circuit’s decision, the system has failed Piotrowski again, she says. NO EVIDENCE Pruessner says Piotrowski lives in Santa Ana, Calif., and is trying to follow through on her life’s dream of completing medical school. The court’s opinion said Piotrowski had been a nursing student when she met Minns on a ski trip to Aspen, Colo., during the winter of 1976. According to Pruessner, Piotrowski has had a hard time making ends meet and recently had her water cut off because she couldn’t pay her bill. The court’s ruling “leaves her penniless,” he says. Piotrowski made several claims that her civil rights were violated by city policies. For example, she alleged that the city’s acquiescence to off-duty employment by police officers working for Bell led to the shooting. While the court said the moonlighting policy “did demonstrate deliberate indifference,” it also noted that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the policy was the moving force that caused Piotrowski to be shot or that it resulted in a “state-created danger” to her life. Piotrowski also alleged that city policy “affirmatively helped” Bell carry out the attack on her. Pruessner says police had provided Bell a mug shot of Piotrowski as well as information about the make of car she was driving and her address. The 5th Circuit, in its opinion, said there is no evidence on record indicating where the mug shot came from, who gave it to Bell or for what purpose it might have been given to him. “Hence, there is no evidence on which to base an adverse inference about the city’s custom or policy,” the opinion said. Liles had testified that he was told not to get personally involved when he reported the tip about the threat of a murder-for-hire contract against Piotrowski, the court said. He also testified that the homicide division lost his report about the tip, Jones wrote. The court said there is no evidence of a connection between members of the homicide department and Minns or Bell. For someone to win on a civil rights claim, Liberato says, there must be an official policy by the city that causes injury to that individual and the city must be the moving force. “In our case, the actions of a renegade police officer are not going to be enough to cause the city to be liable in a civil rights claim,” she says. Four men — Nathaniel Ivery, Patrick Steen, Robert Jess Anderson and Bell — eventually were convicted for their roles in the crime, but “Minns was allowed to leave the country without ever being interrogated, subpoenaed or charged in relation to the shooting of Piotrowski,” Jones wrote in the opinion. Pruessner says Piotrowski was awarded about $32 million in damages from Minns, but the award later was reversed for procedural reasons.

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