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.