The family of a man who drowned while in police custody, was awarded $9 million in the settlement of a lawsuit filed in federal court.
The 20-year-old Arizona State University student from Iowa was boating with friends on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri in May 2014 when he was arrested on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
The trooper placed the student in handcuffs before transporting him for a breathalyzer test. Witnesses to the arrest said the trooper pulled an already-buckled life vest over the man's head after his hands were cuffed behind his back. The man fell overboard and because the life vest had been improperly secured, it fell off and he sank. Witnesses said the trooper had been traveling at excessive speeds and after the man fell overboard, the trooper took his time maneuvering the boat back to the find him. Only after he saw the life vest float away did the trooper jump into the lake to try to find the student. The young man's body was recovered by divers the next day in 70 feet of water.
The man's family filed a lawsuit seven months later against the trooper, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the state of Missouri alleging they were liable for the man's death. The lawsuit claimed that the highway patrol and the state attempted to cover up the circumstances of the death. Although the trooper's boat was equipped with multiple cameras that are supposed to record arrests, patrol officials claimed no video footage existed. In addition, the trooper's story about the incident changed in the hours and days following the drowning.
The lawsuit cited both the trooper's action and inaction as contributing factors to the man's death. It also accused the state and the Highway Patrol of failing to properly train troopers to police the lake after the Missouri Water Patrol merged with the Highway Patrol in 2011. The trooper involved in the drowning incident had only two days of training before being sent onto the lake alone to patrol.
In September, before the parties decided to settle the lawsuit, a judge ruled the highway patrol “knowingly” and “purposely” violated the state's open records law by failing to respond in a timely manner to requests for documents from the family's attorneys. “These documents could all be considered highly damaging to the (highway patrol), and the wrongful nondisclosure of these documents is troubling to the court,” the judge wrote in his decision. He ordered the highway patrol to pay the family a fine of $5,000 and all court costs. Two months later, the civil lawsuit was settled.
Last December the trooper was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the man's death and released on a $50,000 bond. It is a Class C felony punishable by up to seven years in prison, or up to a year in county jail, or a fine of up to $5,000, or a combination of penalties. A special prosecutor assigned to the case said the veteran trooper acted in a reckless manner that resulted in the college student's death. The trooper had told investigators he had not been properly trained to patrol the lake. In a call to a supervisor an hour after the drowning, the trooper admitted to making mistakes.
If you have been harmed as a result of the actions -- or inactions -- of another person, or if a loved one has died, you may be entitled to compensation. Call the offices of trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian at 800-529-6162 or contact them online. The firm handles cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.