Police Brutality Suit Nets Disabled Mother $2.5M
Defiant officer seen as key to settlement
A disabled mother will receive a $2.5 million settlement for the injuries she sustained in a 2010 confrontation with two Cumberland police officers she had called for help. Providence attorney Ronald J. Resmini says two key factors allowed him to negotiate the substantial settlement in the excessive force case, the first being the character and credibility of his client, Ruth Upchurch.
Resmini also cites as a critical factor the deposition testimony of the lead officer at the scene, Shanna D. Loveless, who repeatedly stated that there was nothing she would have done differently in handling the situation.
Upchurch called 911 on April 13, 2010, for help in defusing a domestic situation involving her then-boyfriend, Curtis Ward. Specifically, Upchurch wanted Ward out of her apartment.
Officers Loveless and Jason A. Stacki arrived at the scene and determined that there had been no physical contact between Upchurch and Ward, but decided to arrest Upchurch for domestic vandalism because she had poured bleach on a pile of Ward’s clothes. Stunned at the turn of events but otherwise compliant, Upchurch claimed the officers agreed not to cuff her until she was seated in the back of their police cruiser to avoid being embarrassed in front of her children.
Upchurch also thought she would not be cuffed from behind after advising the officers that she was disabled by prior back injuries and showing them that her wrists were in heavy splints due to carpal tunnel syndrome. But according to Upchurch, Loveless suddenly decided to cuff her from behind outside the police cruiser.
Police claimed that Upchurch attempted to “run away” when Loveless moved to cuff her, which Resmini contends is preposterous given his client’s preexisting disabilities and excess weight.
While police contended that Upchurch injured herself falling when she attempted to run away, Upchurch’s suit alleged that she was forcefully tackled by Loveless and Stacki.
She suffered a left posterior knee dislocation when she hit the ground. Catastrophic loss of blood flow due to arterial damage in her leg resulted in both an immediate medical emergency and long-term complications.
In her suit against the town of Cumberland, Upchurch alleged that the entire incident could have been avoided had co-defendants Loveless and Stacki exercised appropriate discretion by deciding not to arrest her for a minor offense and not to handcuff her when they took her into custody. She also claimed that police failed to exercise reasonable care in subduing her.
Resmini recently spoke with Lawyers Weekly’s Pat Murphy.
Q. Did your client face criminal charges?
A. She was tried for resisting arrest and malicious damage to property. We beat some of those charges but not all of them [in District Court], so we appealed to the Superior Court and pleaded out on a reduced charge so it would not affect her record and assisted us in pursuing the civil action.
Q. Did you view your client as someone who would have been a sympathetic witness had her civil case gone to trial?
A. This client did a lot to sell herself. She was very articulate and community oriented. She was a very peaceful woman and would not have been a good witness for the defense. [The defense] recognized that. They saw that as a vulnerability.
Q. What were some of the key mistakes you think defendant Loveless made in handling the situation?
A. She felt she had to mandatory arrest [my client] based on this misdemeanor. She was wrong. That was mistake number 1. Mistake number 2 was she thought she had to handcuff her, which she didn’t. The protocols of the department indicate that it is discretionary, you use the least force necessary to effectuate the task. She violated all of those responsibilities.
She decides at the last minute to put handcuffs on [my client]. Ruth thinks to herself that she’s going to be embarrassed in front of her kids like a common criminal. So she goes to move away. Ruth couldn’t run if you said you’d doubled the judgment we just settled for.
They could have exercised what they call “open hands control,” kind of a buffer zone before you exercise any type of physical action on someone. This was not a felony, so there was no justification for exercising excessive force anyway.
Q. How big a factor was Loveless’ deposition testimony in the final settlement you obtained?
A. That was the biggest thing in that case. I take huge chances with questions in depositions and at trial. I started the deposition of [Loveless] with the question, “If you had to do it all over again, would you have done anything differently?” I asked it six other times when we got into the damages Ruth sustained and the department’s protocols, and each time she answered, “No.” That showed an ongoing mentality to effectuate a result that was not guided by rules and regulations.
Q. While the officers claimed that Upchurch simply fell down as she tried to evade them, she claimed she was driven to the ground by the officers, right?
A. Yeah, it was like a football tackle. Down she went.
Q. How serious were your client’s injuries?
A. The vein was cut. This was very critical. The officers wanted to take her back to the station, but she was telling them how much pain she was in, so they took her to the hospital. Had they taken her to the station, she would have bled to death and died.
Q. You produced a 24-page brochure with color pictures of your client and her injuries to assist you in your settlement negotiations. Do you usually put together settlement brochures in your personal injury cases?
A. Yes. I do them when the cases have a realistic value of $750,000 or more.
Q. Do you believe the settlement brochure you prepared in the Upchurch case helped you obtain the result you achieved?
A. Absolutely. Even opposing counsel wasn’t bashful in telling me how impressed they were with the presentation of the brochure. It not only graphically presents her injuries, but it also attacks the potential arguments that they were going to raise and addressed the weaknesses of those arguments.
Q. Were settlement negotiations fairly smooth or were they rancorous?
A. I dealt with the most elite, sophisticated defense counsel anyone could ask for. They were consummate professionals. At no time did they insult the injury. They recognized by the deposition testimony of their defendant, Officer Loveless, how unrecanting she was and how dogmatic and affirmative she was on her behavior. They recognized a significant vulnerability. The question became at that particular point only how much. It was a $3 million [liability] policy, and we got $2.5 million.
Action: False arrest, negligence, assault and battery
Injuries alleged: Left posterior knee dislocation; damage to popliteal artery resulting in long-term complications due to catastrophic loss of blood flow
Name of case: Upchurch, et al. v. Town of Cumberland, et al.
Court: Providence Superior Court
Amount: $2.5 million
Attorney: Ronald J. Resmini, Providence (for the plaintiff)