Jury rules Ohio officer must pay $4.4M to family of man he killed
A judge had ruled earlier this year that qualified immunity did not apply to Officer Matthew Rhodes and allowed the suit to go to trial
By Cory Shaffer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A jury on Tuesday awarded $4.4 million to the family of a man shot and killed by a Euclid police officer in 2017.
Officer Matthew Rhodes acted recklessly when he climbed into 23-year-old Luke Stewart’s car and shot him as Stewart drove away from a stop, an eight-member jury unanimously held after a trial sparked by a wrongful death lawsuit that Stewart’s mother filed.
The jury held that Rhodes must pay Stewart’s family $3.9 million for the loss of his support and companionship and $500,000 for the pain and suffering he went through when Rhodes killed him, according to the court.
The jurors declined to make the officer pay Stewart’s family any punitive damages or attorney’s fees.
Jurors deliberated for less than six hours Tuesday before reaching their verdict.
Attorneys Marcus Sidoti and Sarah Gelsomino, who represented Stewart’s family, told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the verdict provided long-awaited accountability for what happened to Stewart.
“I hope this sends a really clear message to the city of Euclid that the community is not going to tolerate this type of policing any more,” Gelsomino said.
Still, Sidoti said the family viewed the verdict as a “double-edged sword.”
“Luke’s still not here,” Sidoti said. “They didn’t win Luke back, they just got some financial support and accountability from the jury for Rhodes.”
Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer reached out to Rhodes’ attorney, James Climer, for comment.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Shannon Gallagher ruled earlier this year that qualified immunity does not apply to Rhodes and allowed the suit to go to trial.
Rhodes shot and killed Stewart about 7 a.m. March 13, 2017, after Rhodes and fellow Euclid officer Louis Catalani got called to the scene by a resident who reported that a car she didn’t recognize was parked on the street in front of her house. Stewart was asleep in the driver’s seat, and the officers said they saw items in the car that led them to suspect he may have been impaired.
Rhodes and Catalani did not turn on their police cars’ red and blue lights or dashboard cameras during the encounter. The department did not provide officers with body cameras at the time so no video exists of the interaction between the officers and Stewart.
Neither Rhodes nor Catalani identified himself as a police officer. They shined bright lights mounted on their police cars on Stewart’s car as they walked up to it.
Stewart tried to drive off when the officers woke him up, so the officers opened his car doors and tried to pull him from the car. Rhodes, who climbed into the passenger seat to push him out the driver’s door, jumped all the way into the car when Stewart began to escape.
Rhodes said he tried to wrestle control of the gearshift away from Stewart as the car drove slowly down the street. Rhodes repeatedly punched Stewart in the head and tasered him before he shot him three times, including once in the chest, Rhodes said. Stewart still had control of the gear shift, so Rhodes fired a final shot into Stewart’s neck.
Rhodes testified that he killed Stewart because he was afraid that Stewart was going crash into a telephone pole, and the impact would send Rhodes flying through the car’s windshield to his death.
Rhodes admitted on cross-examination that the car was in neutral when he shot Stewart. He also said that Stewart did not hit him before he decided to open fire.
Stewart’s family’s attorneys pointed out the car traveled less than a quarter of a mile in 57 seconds, and calculated the car’s average speed was about 14 mph.
A policing expert hired by Stewart’s family testified that Rhodes put himself in danger by entering the car. The expert, retired Tallahassee Police Chief Melvin Tucker, told the jury that he is not aware of any department in the country that teaches officers to get into a car to try to remove a driver.
Tucker also told the jury that Rhodes’ fear that he could be thrown through the windshield if Stewart crashed the car did not rise to the level of an immediate threat that would have justified using deadly force.
Rhodes’ attorneys hired their own expert, former Providence Police Capt. John “Jack” Ryan, who found no fault with any action Rhodes took, including not turning on his dashboard camera or his police lights.
A grand jury declined to indict Rhodes after an investigation by the office of Ohio Attorney General.
Rhodes was promoted to the rank of sergeant earlier this year.
Stewart’s mother, Mary Stewart, sobbed on the first day of testimony as she recounted her son’s life and told jurors that she and Stewart’s siblings were helping to raise his two children, who are in sixth and fourth grades.
Stewart’s attorneys had suggested jurors award more the family more than $11 million, including $150 per day to each child for 54 years, an estimate of what would have been the rest of Stewart’s life had he lived to the average life expectancy, his attorneys said.