While the family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond has yet to file any kind of lawsuit related to her shooting death by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, Twin Cities lawyers say the payout could be a record.
Noor, 32, was charged last week with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the July 15 death of Damond, 40, a spiritual healer who was shot by Noor in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home after she called to report a possible sexual assault. Regardless of the outcome in the criminal case, a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis is all but certain.
The family is represented by Robert Bennett, the dean of Minnesota lawyers when it comes to police misconduct lawsuits, who has won millions of dollars in settlements.
Joseph Daly, an emeritus professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, thinks Bennett will win a settlement of $10 million or more.
“It would surprise me if this case went for $20 million, but it wouldn’t shock me,” he said.
Bennett declined to discuss the case or whether he and the city have been in negotiations. Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal also would not comment on the case. Occasionally lawsuits alleging police misconduct go to trial, but more often, Minneapolis has settled some of its most expensive cases, concerned that a jury could hand it greater punitive damages plus even higher legal fees. The city is self-insured, so the payout would come from city coffers.
Jim Michels, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented police officers, said occasionally a court has ruled the city should not be held responsible for an officer’s misconduct but that “it is pretty rare.”
The largest police misconduct settlement in Minneapolis history occurred in 2007 when the city paid out $4.5 million to Duy Ngo, a Minneapolis police officer. Ngo, who was also represented by Bennett, was shot six times by a fellow police officer who mistook him for a fleeing suspect.
After the Twin Cities was rocked 10 years ago by a scandal over widespread misbehavior by the Metro Gang Strike Force, attorney Randy Hopper filled a class-action suit against the multijurisdictional agency. He won a $3 million settlement on behalf of 96 victims of excessive force.
Hopper said he believes a settlement in the Damond case could be “well in excess of $10 million because of the egregious conduct.”
Even if Noor’s criminal case goes to trial and Noor wins, it may not be of much help to the city, Hopper said. He notes that Jeronimo Yanez, the only other Minnesota officer in recent history who was charged with a shooting, was acquitted by a jury of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop, and Bennett still won a $2.9 million settlement from the city of St. Anthony, Yanez’s employer.
Lawyers say Bennett is likely to underscore that Damond committed no crime and called 911 to report a possible crime when she was shot by Noor. Bennett can also be expected to emphasize that based on the life expectancy of women, Damond might have lived well beyond 40 more years, and her death deprived her fiancé of a long and happy relationship. They were to have been married three weeks after the shooting.
St. Paul attorney Paul Applebaum, a veteran local civil rights lawyer, said he expected a settlement in the $5 million to $10 million range.
“The race of the decedent is huge,” Applebaum said of Damond, who is white. “It’s terrible, it’s sad, it’s unfair, but the race of the decedent, it’s a big factor.
“I think it will probably settle. The city is in a very weak position and has to entertain astronomical numbers because it’s too risky to go to trial,” he said. “I think it’s a scary case for the city attorney’s office. I think [the city] is going to take seriously any figure [Bennett] demands and try to work it down from there the best they can.”
Minneapolis attorney Jim Behrenbrinker, who litigates civil rights cases including those involving police brutality and excessive force, said the threshold is lower in a civil trial where a jury must decide if the “preponderance of evidence” favors Damond’s side. In a criminal trial, a jury would need to find Noor guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“If I were the city, representing the defendants, I would have to advise them there is a potential for a huge award for punitive damages if it went to trial,” he said.