verdicts and settlements
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Date of Verdict:

July 16.

Court and Case No.:

U.S. District Court, W.D. Pa.

Judge:

Lisa Pupo Lenihan.

Type of Action:

Civil rights; use of excessive force.

Injuries:

Swelling and abrasions; emotional distress.

Plaintiffs Counsel:

Maggie Schuetz Coleman, Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien, Pittsburgh.

Defense Counsel:

Michael E. Kennedy, City of Pittsburgh Department of Law, Pittsburgh, for the city of Pittsburgh and Nathan Harper; Bryan Campbell, Law Offices of Bryan Campbell, Pittsburgh, for Robert Smith and Matthew Turko.

Comment:

On Dec. 1, 2010, plaintiff Anthony Kenney, a self-employed car detailer in his late 30s, was driving on Federal Street in the North Side of Pittsburgh, when he turned onto Lafayette Avenue and was pulled over by an unmarked police car.

Kenney’s brother, a passenger, got out of the vehicle at the intersection and ran down Lafayette Avenue, according to court papers. Two officers left the police car and chased after him. Kenney started his car and drove about 400 feet when the police car activated its lights, prompting Kenney to stop.

Kenney alleged that officer Matthew Turko approached his car and ordered him to get out, and that he willingly obeyed. However, Turko grabbed him, hit him twice on the head with his gun, pinned him to his car, handcuffed him and hit the left side of his head several times while yelling, he alleged. Turko then reportedly pulled Kenney behind his car, threw him to the ground and began beating his head, while Kenney screamed. Officer Robert Smith watched but did not intervene, Kenney alleged. Kenney was released at the scene and convicted of fleeing and eluding police.

Kenney sued the officers, the city of Pittsburgh and Police Chief Nathan Harper on claims of excessive force and failure to intervene. (The city and Harper were voluntarily dismissed prior to trial.)

At trial, Kenney reiterated his account, and counsel relied on testimony of an eyewitness who allegedly lived about 40 feet from the incident. The homeowner claimed she heard a scream, which she thought came from a woman, looked out her window and saw the police car’s flashing lights. She saw a man lying face-down, and another man, whom she assumed was a police officer, kneeling on him and striking his head four or five times. Kenney and the witness testified that after the officers saw the witness in the window, they picked Kenney up, uncuffed him and told him to leave.

Turko and Smith denied Kenney’s version of the events and that excessive force was used. According to the officers, after Kenney stopped his car and his brother began to flee, Kenney proceeded onto Lafayette Avenue about 400 feet, which prompted the officers to pull him over. Turko claimed that he had approached Kenney’s vehicle and ordered him out of the car several times, but Kenney had refused. Turko applied an armbar, removed Kenney from the car, and handcuffed him.

The officers claimed that at no time did Turko strike Kenney, whose only injury was a facial abrasion to his right cheek, which Kenney sustained as Turko took him to the ground.

If Turko had struck Kenney with his gun, the defense maintained, he would have suffered serious injuries; instead, he only had a facial abrasion, as demonstrated by his medical records.

The defense questioned the legitimacy of the eyewitness account. According to the officers’ counsel, Kenney was pulled over about a full house length farther up the street from where the eyewitness lived, and not in front of her residence, as she claimed.

The officers testified that they never saw Kenney’s eyewitness in the window, and that after they pulled Kenney from the car, they discovered he did not have a valid driver’s license. Turko stated that he and Smith searched his car in order to tow it, but decided not to go through with the tow.

After leaving the scene, Kenney drove to his girlfriend’s house and then to an emergency room. He underwent a CT scan (it was negative) and was treated for an abrasion to his right cheek and swelling of his left jaw. He was discharged and received no further treatment.

Kenney’s counsel maintained that medical records and photographs taken that evening showed injuries to both sides of his face: an abrasion and swelling to the right side of his face and swelling of his left jaw.

Kenney claimed that after the incident he experienced a degree of paranoia, as he believed police officers were driving by his residence. Kenney sought to recover unspecified amounts in compensatory and punitive damages.

The defense maintained that the swelling of Kenney’s jaw was caused by a sinus infection.

The jury found that Turko used excessive force in taking Kenney into custody, and that Smith violated Kenney’s constitutional rights by failing to intervene in Turko’s actions. Kenney was determined to receive $105,000. Of that amount, jurors determined $75,000 in punitive damages against Turko and $25,000 in punitive damages against Smith.

— This report first appeared in VerdictSearch, an ALM publication