A federal judge has upheld a record $44.7 million judgment against the city in a high-profile police misconduct case, a sum awarded by a jury last fall after the panel found a troubled Chicago police officer shot his friend in the head in the officer’s home after a night of drinking.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber wrote that the award “while high, was not excessive,” and also ordered the city to pay more than $2.7 million in costs and attorney’s fees for Michael LaPorta, who was left with a severe head wound and has used a wheelchair since the 2010 incident.
The officer in question was Patrick Kelly, who had been found mentally unfit for duty twice, was arrested two times, accused of beating a girlfriend and treated for alcohol addiction. He had been the subject of more than two dozen investigations into his on- and off-duty conduct.
Leinenweber in his order this week noted the jury had found the Chicago Police Department enabled Kelly’s behavior by failing to properly investigate the series of complaints against him or properly discipline him, leaving Kelly feeling immune to consequences for his actions.
The judge rejected attempts by lawyers for the city to pare down the jury’s award.
“In short, as described throughout this opinion, the jury heard extensive testimony concerning LaPorta’s severe and permanent injuries,” the judge wrote. “The Court cannot say that their award decisions were not rationally connected to the evidence nor that they were monstrously excessive.”
LaPorta, of the Morgan Park neighborhood, was drinking with Kelly, a longtime friend, as a night at Southwest Side bars concluded in the officer’s home. The pair were alone when the officer’s service weapon was fired into LaPorta’s head.
Police originally classified the case as an attempted suicide, based largely on Kelly’s account of the evening. The federal civil jury ultimately rejected the city’s argument that the incident was either an accidental shooting or that LaPorta tried to take his own life, in part after hearing testimony from LaPorta himself, in halting speech, that he did not shoot himself.
His lawyer, Antonio Romanucci, issued a statement calling the judge’s order another step forward for the city in terms of police reform.
“For decades, the city emboldened rogue police officers with records of misconduct allegations to continue these harmful behaviors, without fear of repercussions,” the statement said. “Today’s ruling is a step toward creating meaningful and permanent institutional reform in law enforcement in the City of Chicago and sends a clear message that officers, like Patrick Kelly, who display long patterns of misconduct will no longer be tolerated.”
The city’s Law Department issued a statement Thursday as well, promising an appeal. The city had argued there was no constitutional violation of LaPorta’s rights because Kelly was not on duty at the time LaPorta was shot.
“We are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, and as we argued in this case, taxpayers should not be responsible for an off-duty officer’s purely private actions,” the statement read. “We have strong legal arguments for the appellate court, and will be filing a notice for appeal.”
Kelly, who exercised his Fifth Amendment rights when asked during the trial whether he had shot LaPorta, has been stripped of his police powers. He has been on paid leave pending the results of an internal affairs investigation. A police spokesman on Thursday said there had been no change in his status.
Kelly has since been named in another federal suit claiming that he and another officer fatally shot a man named Hector Hernandez during a domestic disturbance on the Southwest Side in 2014.
The judge’s ruling this week was not a complete sweep for LaPorta’s defense team, however. It had originally sought some $4.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
Leinenweber found Romanucci’s applied billing rate of $750 an hour was too high and agreed with the city that the rate should be comparable to the $550 hourly amount received by the prominent lawyer Jon Loevy in another recent police misconduct case.
Jeff Coen and Stacy St. Clair Contact Reporters, 8/30/2018, “Judge upholds record $44.7 million jury award in Michael LaPorta case”, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-jury-award-upheld-kelly-20180830-story.html