SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
Los Angeles County must pay a full $8 million damage award to the family of a Black man whose death had similarities to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
While subduing Darren Burley in 2012, deputies “used their knees to pin him to the ground with as much body weight as possible,” according to the court’s unanimous ruling. It said Deputy David Aviles put one knee on the center of Burley’s back and the other “onto the back of Burley’s head, near the neck,” while other deputies also were involved.
Burley died 10 days later.
A jury awarded his family $8 million in damages while finding that Burley was 40% responsible for his own death. An appeals court later reduced the payout by $3.2 million.
The high court justices, however, ruled that the county owes the family the entire $8 million.
Attorney Olu Orange, who represents Burley’s family, said the ruling holds that “in the state of California, victims of police misconduct are going to be able to avail themselves of every law in the legal toolkit to redress violations of their civil rights.”
Los Angeles County and the sheriff’s department did not respond to requests for comment.
“The facts of this case bear similarities to well-publicized incidents in which African Americans have died during encounters with police. These incidents raise deeply troubling and difficult issues involving race and the use of police force,” the court said in its ruling.
The justices said their decision centered on a ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 1986 that assigned damages based on degrees of responsibility, not on Burley’s race or that he was killed during an encounter with law enforcement.
Aviles, who weighed 200 pounds, and another deputy were responding to a report of an ongoing assault in Compton when Burley approached them while “foaming at the mouth and making grunting and growling noises,” according to the court’s account.
It said Aviles knelt on Burley during a significant struggle while three other deputies Tasered him multiple times without apparent effect. A witness said one deputy also appeared to attempt a chokehold, a deputy hit Burley repeatedly in the head with a flashlight, and “Burley appeared to be gasping for air.”
Orange said lawsuits alleging police battery, like the one he filed, are “one of the most effective tools that folks in communities that are typically subject to police violence have in order to seek justice.”
Jurors are instructed to consider if a suspect’s actions justified the officers’ reaction, as well as to assign degrees of responsibility.
The high court ruled that the county and its deputies can’t share the blame with Burley when it comes to apportioning damages for pain and suffering because deputies acted intentionally, as defined by previous court rulings, rather than negligently.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Goodwin Liu went even further in finding parallels with Floyd’s death in May, when a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
“In all likelihood, the only reason Darren Burley is not a household name is that his killing was not caught on videotape as Floyd’s was,” Liu wrote.
“But even as the wrongful death judgment here affords a measure of monetary relief to Burley’s family, it does not acknowledge the troubling racial dynamics that have resulted in state-sanctioned violence, including lethal violence, against Black people throughout our history to this very day,” he added.