WASHINGTON – A federal judge has sharply reduced the $4.1 million award a Prince George’s County man received for a 1997 police beating that left him blind in one eye and partially unable to use his left hand.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled in a decision released Friday that Freddie McCollum Jr. should get no more than $1.6 million for damages, medical bills and lost wages.
Blake said McCollum’s injuries were not severe enough to warrant the $3.5 million for damages granted by a jury, and she cut the award to $1.25 million. She also reduced punitive damages levied against three police officers in the case from a combined $400,000 to a total of $135,000, on the grounds that the higher amounts were “likely to bankrupt the officers.”
McCollum’s attorney criticized the ruling and said he may ask for a new trial.
“We’re sorry that the judge felt that the value of the damages to Mr. McCollum is less than a jury of his peers thought,” said John E. Smathers, the attorney.
For his part, Smathers said he is inclined to retry the case on the issue of damages.
“There is time for us to decide whether we will accept this reduced amount or try it again on the issue of damages,” he said. “We are recommending to the client that we retry.”
The case began in June 28, 1997, when court papers said McCollum was pulled over for a driving violation in front of his Temple Hills home. He had to go to his home to retrieve his driver’s license but police said that, when he did, he slammed the door on the arm of an officer.
The officer called for backup and, once they arrived, the three officers kicked down the door and went inside where they found McCollum hiding in the attic. Police beat him with batons and set a police dog on him, according to published reports.
Those reports also said that police claimed that McCollum was injured when the attic floor gave way under them, dropping them all onto the floor below.
A federal district court jury awarded McCollum $67,670 for his medical bills and $145,000 for lost potential earnings. It also awarded $3.5 million in compensatory damages and ordered two of the officers to pay $150,000 each in punitive damages and a third to pay $100,000.
The judge wrote that McCollum “undoubtedly suffered very serious physical injuries.” But Blake said that “the lack of on-going psychological or physical injury other than the loss of the eye and some impairment of his left hand” indicates the initial award amount was too high, and said it should be $1.25 million “at the outermost.”
Blake also said the $150,000 that officers Robert McDaniel and Michael Hubbard were both ordered to pay was too high, and cut the amount to $50,000 for each officer. She reduced damages against Officer James Murphy from $100,000 to $35,000. Blake noted that none of the officers had received criminal sentences, that all three earn between $50,000 and $61,000 and all three have families.
“The court concludes that a two-thirds reduction in the punitive damages awards, while still substantially punishing the three officers, will better balance the harm inflicted, the need to deter similar conduct in the future, and the officers’ financial resources,” Blake wrote.
But a sharply critical Smathers doubted the officers will ever pay anything.
“We are dependent on the county, because the law really insulates them and the county indemnifies them,” he said. “It is the county’s option if they want to make the officers pay full punitive damages. Historically, the officers don’t pay a dime.”
Smathers said he will at least seek interest payments on the $1.6 million in damages going back to the date of the attack.
The judge declined to rule at this time on the issue of attorney’s fees, but she obliquely criticized Smathers for “demonstrating a substantial lack of understanding of the statutory basis for an award of fees against the defendants.”