Jury Grants $11.3 Million to Man Paralyzed by SJPD

A federal jury awarded $11.3 million to a man left paralyzed when a San Jose police officer shot him in the back.

Jurors determined last week that Officer Dondi West overreacted when she shot a knife-wielding Hung Lam during a confrontation outside his home last year, the Mercury News reported.

The jury award is by far the biggest in San Jose history, according to city spokesman David Vossbrink. It's more than double the previous largest payout, a $4.95 million settlement the city paid in 2013 to a man shot by police when they mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.

“The Lam award is a very significant judgement in terms of its size and potential ramifications,” Vossbrink added. “So we will need to review the jury's decision, evaluate the city's legal options, and determine what our next steps might be.”

On Jan. 3, 2014, Officer West responded to a report of someone having a “mental breakdown” on Cape Horn Drive in San Jose, according to court filings. Lam, who was suicidal, threatened to hurt himself with a kitchen knife.

“There was no indication that anyone other than Mr. Lam was in danger,” according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court a month later by Lam’s attorney, John Burris. Here’s a copy of that claim.

Retired San Mateo County deputy sheriff Helen Anderson, who lives next door and witnessed the entire standoff, testified in court that Lam posed no serious threat to police.

Burris said the shooting was unjustified and that West sentenced Lam, a 36-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who was once “a vibrant dancer,” “to a lifetime in a wheelchair, as a paraplegic.”

After a three-week trial, jurors decided that West shoulders 65 percent of the blame as a 23-year San Jose Police Department veteran who should have known how to de-escalate the threat.

According to the original claim, West escalated the situation by running toward Lam and shouting at him to drop the knife and get on the ground. Lam, who held the knife in one hand and a cellphone in the other, was talking to a neighbor woman with his back toward the officer. West continued “yelling and screaming” while running toward Lam, the complaint alleges, before shooting him twice in the back.

In West's telling, she retreated from Lam until she backed into a bush. Her colleague, Officer Dan Phelan, who had arrived in a separate patrol car said he saw Lam moving erratically but not directly toward West.

Those two bullets struck Lam’s aorta, lungs, kidney and spine. He underwent a life-saving surgery at San Jose Regional Medical Center to repair some of the damage, but the damage rendered him permanently immobilized from the waist down.

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Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

37 Comments

  1. What was that old saying about, “If your enemy is about to destroy him self, for Gods sake don’t get in his way!”

    • It’s a picture of attorney John Burris. It says so in the photo caption.

      JK

      • Sorry Josh go back to this morning post and it showed a picture of the officer when she was in the mounted unit. Funny how the picture has since been removed.

      • And i know who the ambulance chaser is I am talking about the smaller picture in the article that I saw this morning when I posted.

        • Josh this is really a big issue, because it comes down to accountability about honest reporting. Your site posted a picture and then deleted it about a person in a law suit. You reponse suggests the picture never existed. Trust me, I saw the picture of the Officer on her horse while seen working in the Mounted Unit. How are we supposed to believe any article on the site is true or bias? My thought is the latter just like the SJMN is the same when it comes to any charges against SJPD. Just admit the picture was posted on this website then deleted. If you post something then stand behind it.

          • I remember seeing the picture as well. I’m kicking myself for not taking a screen shot.

        • Pete: You’re being more than charitable. He lied. I know someone else who saw the photo of the officer that was later taken down. JK also has his panties in a bunch about my criticisms of Jenn…as if I were the only SJI blogger who thinks her stories and point of view suck. Here’s an email he sent me a while back:

          JMO,
          I’ve warned you multiple times to stop attacking reporter Jennifer Wadsworth [technically correct, he “warned” me twice to stop picking on Jenn. Has he warned anyone else? Pretty much everyone disagrees with her stories. ], but it seems you just can’t let this odd vendetta go. While you’re entitled to your opinion, that doesn’t mean it needs to be on San Jose Inside.
          If you keep it up I am going to delete your account. That would be a first, which is saying something.
          [Yes, it would be saying quite a bit about Josh’s view of free speech]
          JK
          Josh Koehn
          News Editor
          Metro
          408.200.1336
          [email protected]

          • Thank you gentlemen, this is why I rarely post because SJI makes posts and lies to us. The picture existed just admit to it and move on. But this post just pissed me off. Happy Holidays

          • I’ll try to post my thoughts again. apparently my original comment didn’t pass through the weekend censor…

            It seems to me that the person(s) running SJI are following the lead of so-called university students bent on establishing the “pop culture de jour.” Universities used to say they were havens of the free exchange of ideas with the ultimate goal of TRUTH.

            Journalists who subscribe to a professional code of ethics love to put themselves forward as seekers and reporters of TRUTH. They claim to stand on the shoulders of the Murrow’s and Cronkite’s of yesteryear who established trust between reporters and the consumers of their news product. The Woodward/Bernstein’s set the bar again (but when their work – at least Woodwards didn’t match the pop-scenes desired perception he lost cred).

            Anyway, Journalists as a whole love to hang their hat on the 1st Amendment for its protections on Free Speech and a Free Press as the foundations for keeping a free society well informed with TRUTH.

            What does SJI and so-many university campii have in common? Seems like the creation of the “safe space” where all who enter (employees of SJI) are supposed to be free from all criticism and judgement AND FREE to judge and criticize all persons and things with which they disagree.

            SJI has a long established track record of publishing things that come from a certain perspective. At times that “perspective” is at odds with some readers world-view and in agreement with others. How do I know this? I just have to read the comments. Regular posters agree and disagree and are usually civil and usually state there positions and back them up with facts and anecdotes that perhaps SJI (staff) was unaware of or if aware failed to investigate or even disclose for consideration.

            SJI is frequently challenged from all sides of an argument with allegations of incomplete and/or unbalanced reporting. Rather than acknowledge or follow-up on these deficiencies the typical response from SJI is to just ignore them.

            From inside the “safe space ” Commenter’s posts are deleted; JK emails JMO with warnings of banishment for his criticism of JW; JK is revamping the posting rules because VBS accuses him of being a racist; JK mocks MW for this or that… At least RichR publishes feature pieces AND responds to commenters who both agree and disagree with him – sometimes he even comments on features agreeing/disagreeing with SJI staff and opens himself for further scrutiny.

            I think at the end of the day readers and commenters are looking for the TRUTH. I don’t think SJI delivers TRUTH as a matter of practice and it irks consumers looking for that truth. Over the years I have expressed my disappointment with the product. It has only gotten worse. I’m not at all surprised that JK would threaten anyone with banishment but I am surprised that he would go that route with JMO – I seem to recall an SJI staffer onetime fawning over JMO’s commentary on a piece he was agreeing with and providing supporting information to SJI’s position… I remember thinking at the time that if SJI were to go so far thanking someone who agreed with them in a moment in time they would be equally as harsh and unforgiving should that party every cross SJI.

            So I’ll close with a fantasy that some day some governing body or court hearing an SJI staffers request for a FOIA, appeal of a denied FOIA, or maybe even a criminal contempt proceeding for failing to disclose an “anonymous/protected source” for material facts calls SJI out when it pulls out its “First Amendment” shield.

            (since this comment will probably be dumped by SJI I’m also posting it on the usual blog sites)

          • JMO,

            Ditto, he has threaten me as well that is why for the most part I have given up on this site but could not sit on my hands with this crappy reporting. Just admit the picture existed and why you won’t post the face of the so called victim. The subject who was shot did not want his/her picture posted but yet SJI posted the officers picture. Did they ask the officer? The so called defendant looked like a female from behind in the pictures in the Mercury. Regardless show all the parties involved or none. SJI I am sure you have pictures from the trial or press conference.

          • [Yes, it would be saying quite a bit about Josh’s view of free speech]

            How is he interfering with your freedom of speech? 1 simple question.

            Do you own SJI?

            Of course you don’t. This is a privately owned and operated website.

            Just for a matter of context here, I don’t particularly like Josh’s moderation sometimes, but again I understand this is pretty much his Rodeo and I have no right legal or otherwise to tell him how to run things.

            Same goes for the rest of you complaining about it. If you don’t like it, stop posting here. The whole reason SJI has any value at all is because of the commentators. If we did not have value, they would simply turn off commenting for articles.

            Unfortunately for your causes nobody is willing to go on strike for this site, and the electronic dick wagging will continue. So move along, nothing to see here.

  2. Vossbrink is talking through his other portal. SJPD was 25 million short on their budget this year because of huge payouts for killing homeless, mentally ill or intoxicated unarmed or minimally armed people. Wait till you see the verdict on the Black n’ Decker Uzi Girl killed my the AR-15 Packing Mama and 46 other inane conducts. This is a great verdict and when the Bobbsee twins Slick Liccardo and Rick “the Farm It Out City” Lawyer tell you about the secret payouts to several other SJPD screw-up cops.

    You need a tough CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARD on make these guys carry one bullet in their left breast pocket with the key to it in the Chief’s wallet. These guys want tanks and Hummers and 106 Howitzers and they can’t determine what’s sensible . 23 years and what, not a lick of retained training. People who are mentally ill have no volitional control so yelling and screaming is useless. A 5150 citizen and a 5150 cop waiving a gun to become famous with the rest of these idiots is the last thing you need.

    By the way what ever happened to the rapist cop????????????????????? What did that cost us to shut her up????????

    • It never ceases to amaze me how many lawyers, super cops, and just general know it all’s. There are on these blogs Mr. Slade the only thing I can say that this website might print is you are a giant ass. I hope for the sake of humanity that you can’t procreate. Sir you couldn’t carry the dirty socks of any police officer willing to do the job. If you knew anything about court the facts of a case always get twisted which is why we have an appeals process but I’m sure you’re an expert on that to.

  3. Wow. Just think of how far that $11 million could have gone to help communities.

  4. Keep shooting fools and you’ll be down to 10 cops for the City. You have been losers since Chief Murphy and the Chief’s Guru Calliostro, Mike Roberts the mystical unlicensed Psychologist with the magic wand who laid the cop divorcees.

    • I think slade is right there shouldn’t even be a police department . As long as we have brilliant people like him what do need cops for . I’m sure he can make split second decisions and never make a mistake. Since I’m sure he is one hell of a generous person he’ll probably do for free.

    • Why on earth would you harbor any resentment toward a (Licensed, accredited, and highly esteemed) police psychologist? …Let me guess, you were evaluated at some point and deemed to be unfit for duty?

      Your assertion that the city and the PD were “25 million short” on the operating budget this year could not be anything further from the truth. Even with the obscene amount of overtime being doled out, the department is still well under its operating budget due to the fact the city cannot fill the growing 250+ vacancies.

      Your real last name happen to be Ferguson by chance?

      • Slade has been grinding his axe since the 70’s. Bro take your meds and let it go….Yes the PD is flush with money right now as the city has been breaking everyone’s back squeezing the work out of 800 that used to be covered by at least 1350. Yet the city “leaders”, I use that term lightly, are on the fence to bring the business tax code up to par with other cities. Probably won’t happen as the corruption runs deep. Sam is in pocket of all the big name developers and Tom McEnery. The cartel is alive and well in SJ…..

  5. The city should seriously consider enacting a statutory damage cap because this will get out of control before you know it.

  6. This is highway robbery. Who do you think is paying for this? There is something seriously wrong with the system or else the city will go bankrupt. The jury must have been in the holiday giving mood.

  7. I know Officer West professionally. I have no doubt that she determined that deadly force was necessary to protect the public and/or her fellow officer. She is an excellent and dedicated peace officer. I always know when she testifies for me that she is fully prepared and that her work ethic permeates all her police work.

  8. The jury did not buy the officer’s story. She was found 65% at fault.
    She shot the victim twice in the back and permanently paralyzed him.
    He and his lawyer deserve every penny.

    • Robyn,

      Since you seem to know so much about this, please enlighten me about the facts and circumstances surrounding the encounter.

      Thanks!

    • This verdict is the result of bad lawyering, not bad police work. Anyone who has even a remote understanding of “close range interpersonal crisis management” would see that immediately.

      An average human being can close a distance of 10’ in about 1 second and this does not take into account an officer’s reaction time of at least ¼ to ½ second for an alert officer, and which is much more than that for one who is not expecting an assailant to suddenly turn and launch an attack. Turning away is a street fighting technique designed and often used to catch an opponent off-guard, or increase their reaction time, by giving the false appearance of surrender or impending flight, thus prompting the opponent to relax their anticipatory defense too soon.

      When a suspect fails to drop a knife (a deadly weapon) in the presence of an armed police officer who is directing them to do so, the only reasonable assumption is that the suspect intends to use it.

      An assailant, armed with a knife, with their back turned, and hands concealed, will not “telegraph” the type of attack that is impending. Such a knife attack is dictated by the position of their hands on the knife and there is a significant difference when defending oneself against an overhand stab, a straight or upward thrust or a slashing attack, of which there are numerous types.

      As opposed to a firearm, a knife never runs out of ammunition, never jams and most humans, even most slobs, can generally stab faster and with greater accuracy than even the average trained person can fire a handgun. One can defend oneself and possibly even disarm an assailant by grabbing and twisting the firearm (albeit an extremely risky, foolhardy and desperate move) but trying to do the same against a knife attack will likely result in the loss of one’s fingers.

      It is a simple matter to demonstrate these things, and more, in court (Hell, I could even do it and I am no tough guy, am barely average and certainly no expert). The fact that the attorney for the City did not present or emphasize these facts to a jury borders on malfeasance and unquestionably speaks to the attorney’s abject ignorance of such matters.

      As to the retired deputy who failed to recognize the danger to the officer in this situation, that level of ignorance and foolishness is nearly shameful. She is certainly no street cop, has probably never been in an actual no-rules street fight and no experienced police officer would ever (willingly) work with someone whose perception of danger is so unimaginably lacking.

  9. In making its decision the jury (incredibly) formed these conclusions:

    — Lam was not a danger to anyone else; this despite that the person who knew him best (his boyfriend) had felt it necessary to flee across the street to safety and yell to neighbors to call 911.

    — That Lam could’ve been talked into dropping his knife; this despite his neighbor (the retired deputy) having been afforded considerable time (from before the 911 call to the arrival of the police) to effect this.

    — That Lam’s boyfriend’s perception of the threat confronting Officer Hart was of equal value as that of the officer; this despite his having admitted to police detectives that he was hiding behind a tree (across the street) at the time of the shooting.

    — That the retired deputy’s perception of the threat confronting Officer Hart was of equal value to that of the officer; this despite her having removed herself to her own property and her claim that Lam, after having dropped his cellphone (but not the knife), had not moved at all, when the physical evidence proved Lam had moved at least 13 feet.

    — That the threat posed by a man armed with a knife and in close proximity ceases when that man turns his back to his potential victim; this despite the tactical value of concealing one’s hands (and intention-revealing facial expression), as well as the accelerative value of rotating the body prior to throwing a small object (as can be seen in the windup of a pitcher or discus hurler). Importantly, it is simply not possible for an officer in such a position to get off a shot in time to prevent such a man from turning and throwing his knife (with potentially fatal results for the officer).

    — That Lam, who demonstrated his lucidity by dropping his cellphone when ordered, should nevertheless be viewed as having retained in total his right to expect the police to deliver to him a peaceful, non-injurious outcome despite his continued refusal to drop the knife as ordered. In deciding this the jury treated this man who’d chosen to make himself a public menace to his boyfriend and neighbors as a harmless innocent, something the evidence simply does not support.

    — That Officer Hart had not, in her 23 years of unblemished, meritorious police service, accumulated the professional credibility sufficient to have her word and judgment treated with respect in an incident made controversial solely by the existence of conflicting perceptions. In what other field are such professionals afforded so little respect? Would a jury ever be so dismissive of the experience and judgment of any other professional who’d acted in a life and death situation? I don’t think so. Of course, no other profession has been so often discredited (on an as-needed basis) for political purposes by the media.

    A shoot/don’t shoot incident such as the one that confronted Officer Hart is tremendously challenging: it was Officer Hart — and not the neighbor or boyfriend, upon whom all the responsibility fell. It was her responsibility to keep the threat contained (can’t let him get loose in the neighborhood), keep herself close enough to him to control his attention, and keep a safe angle to him (to avoid putting innocents in the firing line). The evidence showed that Officer Hart tried to do all these things to the best of her ability; tried to do them long enough to give Lam more time to comply and her backup officer time to retrieve a non-lethal weapon. The evidence showed that Lam refused to comply and was on the move; Officer Hart testified her tactical retreat was hindered by the landscape; no other person was anywhere near as close to Lam; she had the best perspective and the most to lose. She deserved to be believed.

    One can only imagine how many such cases Officer Hart has handled without ever having run out of time and space, without ever having to use her firearm, but in this case the jury treated her as if her experience — her decades of service, had given them no reason to believe her. This is an honorable, accomplished human being; San Jose has been lucky to have her serve as a police officer. Yet this jury has sent her an unfair and devastating message, and it has sent an ominous message to this city’s police officers.

    I am embarrassed to live in a city that can produce such a jury. Officer Hart deserves this community’s apology.

  10. What I find appalling is there appears to be very little consideration here for the fact that Lam very clearly intended to either hurt himself or someone else. Lam forced the confrontation with the officer, while armed with a lethal weapon. How is that not being highlighted as the key factor here??

    Lam, armed with a kitchen knife, purposely advanced on the officer with his back turned and his hands out of view. Knowing he was still armed with the knife, the officer interpreted Lam as a deadly threat. Lam did not have the courage to confront the officer face to face while he advanced on her, presumably, trying to get shot. Lam did not know how close he would have needed to get to the officer in order to elicit his desired reaction (being shot), so he advanced upon her and suddenly spun around to face her for a brief moment. Upon repeating this sequence at least once more, Lam had closed the distance enough to make the officer fear for her life while simultaneously, she was backed into an object that prevented her ability to flee to a position of advantage. Lam just happened to have his body in the process of spinning around when the officer fired her weapon. This was not a simple, “shot in the back” type scenario.. Lam was trying to commit suicide at the hands of the officer.

    This jury’s decision is a travesty. A failed attempt at “suicide by cop” should not net someone a multi million dollar pay day.

  11. So, the takeaways from this trial:

    1. Police officers who respond to calls for service related to suicidal subjects expose themselves to an undue level of personal, professional and financial liability should they deem deadly force is required to be used in the course of their contact with said subject.

    2. Potential victims of said suicidal subjects cannot be relied upon to act or speak with integrity in the aftermath of the incident.

    Conclusions: In light of the fact that police officers have no affirmative duty to respond to such incidents to prevent a potentially suicidal subject from injuring or killing themselves (affirmed repeatedly in courts at various levels) police officers should not be dispatched to incidents involving single suicidal subjects. With respect to incidents where there is a possibility that bystanders might be injured by the suicidal party, officers should henceforth limit their efforts to safeguarding said bystanders and containing said suicidal party, ensuring a ‘safe zone’ for that subject to do with themselves as they please with no injurious outcomes to third parties or the responding officers.

    While Officer West’s diligence and dedication are to be applauded, it is clear that her reward in this instance is to have her good name dragged through the mud and to suffer undue stress while being keelhauled through the court system.

    And, in light of the circumstances, I cannot see where it would not have been a better choice to simply secure the area and let Mr. Lam kill himself or not, as he saw fit. The city could not have been sued for any reason if Mr. Lam injured or killed himself and Officer West would not have been forced to suffer the indignity of this trial.

    In NO way should my comments be construed as Monday-morning Quarterbacking. Rather, I am making a calculated observation that, in light of various changes to our social conscience, there is very little to be gained for the collective whole by trying to prevent a suicidal subject from killing themselves. Rather, the ONLY concern should be with preventing that person from bringing harm to others.

  12. When we speak of a suicidal person it is imperative that we differentiate between the person who is considering killing himself and the person who opts to profess to others (through his words and/or actions) the intent to take his own life; the former being someone who represents no danger to others (and with whom the police typically interact only postmortem), while the latter’s true intentions (outside of getting attention) and representative danger to others cannot be known (which is why they so often come to the attention of the police).

    Using Mr. Lam as an example, had he truly wanted to kill himself he could’ve done it when he first took possession of the knife. But he didn’t kill himself, he instead used the knife in such a way that his boyfriend ran away in fear and shouted out for someone to call 911. This raises an important question: did his boyfriend flee across the street because he feared Lam would harm him with the knife? If the answer is yes, then the accurate depiction of Lam would not have been that of a suicidal man but that of a potential assailant armed with a deadly weapon. And this is what the evidence supports; had his boyfriend not been in fear of his life he could’ve gone back into the house and used the phone to call 911; his actions establish Lam as having been unpredictable and dangerous.

    If Lam appeared unpredictable and dangerous to someone who knew him intimately, he certainly was perceived that way by Officer West (sorry for using her maiden name in my earlier post). For the officer to have treated Lam as anything less (such as a person who wanted only to harm himself) would’ve been reckless and irresponsible. The tragedies that could’ve occurred had the officer been so negligent as to allow Lam to continue to move freely are many, with potential victims to include innocent neighbors. The officer was obligated to keep herself close enough to Lam to contain him, and it was this obligation that led her to fall into harm’s way.

    Given that Lam had had plenty of time to kill himself but didn’t, we have to wonder why it is he continued to possess the knife, why he subsequently brandished it at Officer West (which I understand he pleaded guilty to in criminal court), and why he refused to drop it when lawfully ordered? What were his intentions for the knife? Neither police officer on scene ever achieved a tactical position that would’ve allowed them to interfere with Lam had he attempted to slash his wrist or throat, or plunge the knife into his abdomen. But these things he never tried, choosing instead to hang onto the knife and move about in a manner that ultimately put the officer in fear for her life. What the evidence makes clear is one thing and one thing only: Lam’s intention was to imperil the officer. Whether he hoped to imperil her into shooting him (the so-called suicide by cop) or hoped to assault her is something we cannot know, but in this scenario it was he, by way of his own disregard for his safety, who was really in control.

    As things stand now, the cops had better change their first priority in dealing with these situations from protecting the public to protecting themselves. I suggest they stage prior to responding to the scene so that they might respond with adequate personnel (at least five, with two assigned to non-lethal weapons) and a tactical plan. Any loss of life that occurs between the 911 call and the arrival of the response team (likely to be 20 plus minutes) can be attributed to the idiocy of the civil court system.

  13. Jenn tells us that “Officer Dan Phelan, who had arrived in a separate patrol car, said he saw Lam moving erratically but not directly toward West.” It would be helpful to know if that quote was from Officer Phelan’s report or was it his trial testimony. So, was Officer Phelan just standing there? Why did he not position himself facing whack job Lam where he could have better observed what the whack job was doing? It would also be helpful to know how many or how few seconds elapsed from the time Officer West arrived on scene and the time she shot whack job Lam, and how many or how few seconds elapsed after Officer Phelan arrived on scene before Officer West shot whack job Lam. Did Officer Phelan draw his weapon? If so, why? If not, why not? Jenn quotes attorney Burris’s claim, which is merely the position he is asserting on behalf of his client against the city and Officer West, but she does not provide us with trial testimony under oath. At the end of the day, it is impossible to fairly evaluate Jenn’s story due to the lack of sufficient evidence. One thing is certain to me, however: no 30 hour crisis intervention training course will ever be sufficient for police officers to handle suicidal people with weapons in a way that will satisfy all sides. Police officers are wrongly placed in an untenable position, and the advantage then goes to Monday Morning Quarterbacks with an agenda. Frankly, I wish these morons who stage these drama queen suicide scenarios would have the guts to do what they threaten to do— just kill themselves. The world would be a safer place, and the gene pool would benefit as well.