SANTA ANA, Calif. (FOX 11 / CNS) - The city of Fullerton will pay $4.9 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the city and five officers involved in the deadly struggle with transient Kelly Thomas four years ago, attorneys announced Monday.
The Fullerton City Council approved the deal during a closed-door meeting called just as opening statements were set to being in trial of the lawsuit, which was filed by Ron Thomas on the one-year anniversary of his son's
2011 death. The lawsuit alleged assault and battery, negligence, wrongful death and civil rights violations.
An 11-woman, five-man jury was seated Wednesday. Opening statements were set for today, but in light of the settlement talks, the jury was told to stay home and return to court tomorrow. The panel is still expected to come to the courthouse, but the judge presiding over the case will simply thank them for their service and dimiss them.
An attorney representing Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, said earlier that evidence in the trial would show the officers violated their training and department's rules and suffocated the 37-year-old transient July 5, 2011, at
the Fullerton Transportation Center.
The attorneys representing the defendants said Thomas had a heart attack due to a preexisting condition and the officers acted properly and were not at fault in the man's death. But Thomas' attorney, Garo Mardirossian, cited
Orange County coroner reports concluding Kelly Thomas died of "positional asphyxiation and blunt force trauma to the head."
A former Ventura County medical examiner came to the same conclusion and had been expected to testify, Mardirossian added.
Kelly Thomas was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 21 years old and decided "he was better off living outdoors," Mardirossian said. The transient could always stay with his mother or father and a grandparent, but
more often than not during his adulthood he chose to be "semi- homeless," Mardirossian said.
The 33-minute video of the encounter between Thomas and Fullerton police was expected to be featured prominently in the civil trial, just as it was in the criminal trial, which led to the acquittals of Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli. Prosecutors later dropped charges against former Officer Joe Wolfe.
A total of six officers were involved in the deadly struggle, and they had an average weight "well over 200 pounds each," Mardirossian said.
As Thomas pleaded that he couldn't breathe and cried out for help from his father, the officers used a Taser on him and beat on him as they tried to hobble him with handcuffs, Mardirossian said. Thomas was declared brain dead the night of the struggle and was taken off life-support machines July 10.
"We don't believe they should have used any force in this case at all," Mardirossian said.
Attorney Dana Fox, who represents Sgt. Kevin Craig and Officer Jim Blatney, said, "This is a tragic case, no doubt about it, but there are many sides to this story."
Fox said Ramos had encountered Thomas several times before, but that the trouble began when Thomas refused to identify himself. Ramos remembered Thomas, but did not recall his name, Fox said.
Wolfe searched Thomas' backpack and found mail addressed to an attorney, so they suspected a possible theft of mail, Fox said. The struggle started when Thomas refused to follow the officers' orders and then stood up to
"confront" the officers, Fox said.
Craig showed up 19 minutes into the conflict, Fox said. The 19-year veteran sergeant's job was to ensure the officers are safe, and "he's helping coach the officers to get the man cuffed," Fox added.
Craig also tried to make certain Thomas was restrained in a way that did not inhibit his breathing, Fox said. When Thomas was put into an ambulance he was still breathing, the attorney said.