Insurer to pay $380,000 to settle Taser lawsuit against North Charleston
By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier
North Charleston’s insurer has agreed to pay $380,000 to an Iraq War veteran who said a police officer shocked him three times with a Taser for no reason.
The settlement will end National Guardsman Brian Yates’ excessive force lawsuit that a federal appeals court already had used to further define how police can use stun guns.
As part of the agreement, the North Charleston Police Department and the officer, Christopher Terry, did not admit to wrongdoing.
Terry had insisted that he fired the device during a December 2008 traffic stop because Yates was ignoring his orders and kept jerking away.
The state’s Insurance Reserve Fund, which backs North Charleston, negotiated the deal. It did not immediately comment on inquiries about the case.
Brady Hair, a city attorney, said he was disappointed that the fund did not consult his office or the lawyers who defended North Charleston in the suit.
“The city believes the officer acted appropriately and used reasonable force based on the facts and circumstances of the encounter,” Hair said. “We stand behind the officer’s actions.”
Yates’ attorney, Jason Luck of Charleston, said he and his client were pleased. The settlement allows the police to avoid a potential trial judgment, but Luck said the case set an important precedent. A judge presiding over the suit had ruled earlier that the officer wasn’t entitled to “qualified immunity” — the concept that public officials cannot be expected to know their actions are unlawful.
A regional federal appeals court affirmed the judge’s decision, pushing the case to trial. Early this year, the same court had issued another strong ruling in a separate case involving police in Pinehurst, N.C.
“Between this and the Pinehurst case, we are getting a pretty good idea of what an acceptable use of a Taser is,” said Luck, who worked with lawyer Gordon Garrett. “But it’s an expensive learning process for North Charleston.”
Insurance payouts for North Charleston’s police force increased from $250,000 in 2012 to $750,000 in 2015. This year, the fund contributed its $1 million per case limit to a $6.5 million settlement between the city and the family of Walter Scott, whose shooting death was caught on a video that led to officer Michael Slager’s arrest.
The payments could continue to mount as three other people have sued Slager and other officers over Taser episodes. Notoriety over Scott’s death is thought to have bolstered those pending claims.
Sandy Senn’s West Ashley law firm would have defended Terry at trial. She acknowledged a “fear of large verdicts against the police these days,” but most lawsuits against officers are frivolous and should be fought, she held.
“It is difficult to accept that a lot of tax dollars went to reward a man for very poor conduct,” Senn, a Republican candidate for state Senate, said of the Yates case. “I think it is time for us to buck up and defend our officers again.”
Terry, now a detective, was on patrol eight years ago when he pulled over Yates’ 1972 Buick Skylark. He reported the car had been speeding and blasting music on U.S. Highway 78.
Yates, a Ladson resident, didn’t have his driver’s license with him, so Terry had him get out. In court filings, Yates said he turned his head when he was first hit with the Taser. On the ground, he was shocked again “for no apparent reason,” he alleged, and again when he tried to slide his cellphone to his nearby brother.
But Terry and his attorneys said Yates pulled away from the officer during the encounter. Terry feared Yates could be going after a gun and used the Taser to gain compliance. It took three jolts before Yates put his hands behind his back, they said. A gun was later found in Yates’ car.
After Yates sued Terry in U.S. District Court, the officer’s attorneys asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the claims against him. But the court had just ruled in the Pinehurst case that officers could not use a Taser only to stop a person evading arrest. That precedent didn’t apply to Yates’ suit, but the court denied Terry qualified immunity, saying no reasonable officer would think his use of force was justifiable.
The ruling was significant for Yates. Immunity is usually a “big killer” of civil claims that prevents them from going to trial, his attorney said.
“It gives them huge leeway,” Luck said.
An initial agreement was hashed out on the eve of the trial earlier this month, and it was finalized later.
The Pinehurst case already has prompted police agencies in South Carolina to change their Taser policies. Luck expects more change to come in North Charleston and elsewhere, he said. But Senn, who frequently defends police in lawsuits, said the ruling left “more questions open than it clarified” and could lead to more injuries to officers and suspects.
“I hope this can help them move further in a positive direction,” he said.