Over half of $100M verdict thrown out after man tased in 2018 pursuit
A judge said there wasn’t enough evidence that the city’s policies or training standards were the problem
By Asia Simone Burns
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — A federal judge who oversaw a $100 million police misconduct case against the City of Atlanta and one of its officers granted a motion on Wednesday that clears the city of its direct liability and shaves off more than half the verdict awarded to a 69-year-old man paralyzed after the officer tased him.
Judge Steve C. Jones said that although the jury found Officer Jon Grubbs used excessive force when he tased Jerry Blasingame in 2018, there was not enough evidence that the city’s policies or training standards were the problem.
The judge on Wednesday granted a motion for judgment filed by the City of Atlanta, which overturned the $60 million in compensatory damages that the verdict last month brought down against it. Still, the judge upheld the $40 million verdict against the officer.
Jones said he did not make the decision lightly as “trial by jury is a hallmark of our justice system, a bedrock principle of this country.” However, he said, the court must “correct a clear error in those rare cases where juries reach a legally unsupportable result.”
In respect to the claims made in this case, Jones wrote: “The jury did so here.”
The judge’s decision formally closed the case brought to the federal court on behalf of Blasingame, who was left paralyzed from the neck down by the incident.
The incident happened the afternoon of July 10, 2018 near Windsor Street, south of downtown, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in 2019. The filing said Blasingame, who was unarmed, was on the street and asking people for money, when Grubbs and another officer arrived and saw him talking with a driver.
When Grubbs got out of an APD patrol car and told Blasingame to stop, Blasingame moved out of the street and ran, the lawsuit alleged. At some point, Grubbs ran at Blasingame and deployed his Taser on Blasingame, causing him to “fall and seriously injure himself.”
At the trial, which lasted just over a week, the eight-person federal jury awarded Blasingame both compensatory and punitive damages on August 26. The city was liable for $60 million and Grubbs for $40 million.
Jones initially did not grant the city’s motion for judgment but took it under advisement when they renewed it ahead of jury deliberations. He sided with the city after determining that Blasingame’s attorneys had not presented enough evidence that the city’s policies had created a widespread and persistent problem with excessive force that ultimately led to the 69-year-old’s injuries.
“Because Plaintiff failed to show that the City of Atlanta was the moving force behind Officer Grubbs’ use of taser against Mr. Blasingame, the Court finds that there was not sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to find against the City of Atlanta with respect to use-of-force or use-of-taser policies,” Jones wrote.
The attorneys representing Blasingame and his conservator at trial called on multiple witnesses, including two experts, who spoke about body camera usage. During the trial, the experts testified that the city created an environment in which officers felt there were no consequences for failing to comply with policies. The attorneys contended that indifference and shortcomings when supervising officers led to the excessive force used by Grubbs.
Evidence of this, the attorneys said, was that Grubbs’ bodyworn camera was in the incorrect recording mode during his encounter with Blasingame and did not capture the full incident. The attorneys contended that knowing that there would be no video footage of the encounter allowed Grubbs to feel comfortable using excessive force without repercussions.
However, the judge said that while the experts offered opinions that proper use of body cameras can reduce the use of excessive force, there wasn’t enough evidence to show if failing to use a body camera increases that force. The judge wrote that the relationship between the use of body cameras and the use of excessive force in the case was “too tenuous” to support the plaintiff’s claim.
“Even considering that evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, however, the Court cannot find that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that any policies and procedures related to (body-worn cameras) caused the constitutional violation at issue,” Jones wrote.
Jones ruling determined there was enough evidence presented at trial that Grubbs had used excessive force, but the evidence didn’t point to the city’s culpability. Jones denied a separate renewed motion for judgment filed by Grubbs, thus the $40 million verdict against him was upheld.
Blasingame’s attorney Ven Johnson told the AJC he is “disappointed” by the judge’s decision to grant the city’s motion and that he and Blasingame’s other attorneys plan to file a motion asking the court to reinstate the jury’s verdict. However, he said he is pleased the judge upheld the verdict against Grubbs.
“Judge Jones denied Officer Grubbs’ directed verdict motion for a second time and thus the court will enter a judgment in favor of our client for $40 million,” he said, adding that he will next file a motion for costs, interest and attorney fees.
The City of Atlanta declined to speak on the judge’s decision, citing its policy not to comment on pending litigation.