Louisiana Wrongful Death Summary Judgment Overturned on Appeal

If you have ever been selected to serve as a juror, you know that the jury’s job in a trial is to hear the facts and arguments presented by both parties to a case and to make an informed judgment based on the evidence. In criminal cases, the jury is asked to assess the state or federal government’s case against the defendant and determine his guilt or innocence. In civil cases, the jury evaluates a dispute between two parties, and determines whether one party must compensate the other for damages caused.

Before a civil lawsuit reaches the trial stage, either party to the case may file a motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment is when the court dismisses the case and rules in favor of the moving party (the party making the motion), on the grounds that there were no triable issues of material fact presented. “No triable issues” means that all reasonable-minded persons would come to the same conclusion after weighing the evidence presented.

A verdict for summary judgment can be hard to overcome on an appeal, as the court will be reviewing the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the appeal. Additionally, Louisiana legislature expressly favors the summary judgment procedure, as it saves the time and cost of a jury trial. Nonetheless, there are certain types of cases that by their nature should not be settled by summary judgment. An example of such a case would be Bryan and Madison Manis’ wrongful death lawsuit, in which the Louisiana Fifth Circuit of Appeal overruled a verdict for summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Bryan and Madison Manis sued police officer Douglas Zemlik, Gretna Chief of Police Arthur Lawson, and the city of Gretna for the wrongful death of their father, Michael Manis Jr. On October 3, 2005, police officers were called to the scene where Mr. Manis was parked in his car on railroad tracks and failing to respond to any of the green lights. After Mr. Manis did not respond to the verbal commands of Sergeant Vinson and Deputy Zemlik, the officers shook Mr. Manis to wake him up. Mr. Manis then began flailing and cursing at the officers, repeatedly lurching in their direction but restrained by his seatbelt. Mr. Manis refused the officers’ instruction to exit the vehicle. Despite Mr. Manis’ behavior, Sergeant Vinson managed to turn off the ignition by reaching through the passenger side door.

Once both officers were on the driver’s side of the car, Mr. Manis reached under the front seat with one or both hands. Mr. Manis refused repeated orders to show his hands, and once it seemed to Deputy Zemlik that Mr. Manis had retrieved something and was sitting back up, Mr. Zemlik shot Mr. Manis four or five times in the back, neck and shoulders. The witnesses who had called the officers to the scene asserted that Mr. Manis “went crazy” during the incident, and the toxicology report later showed that Mr. Manis tested positive for cocaine, barbiturates, marijuana and alcohol.

To determine whether an officer used reasonable force in a given set of circumstances, the court follows a seven-factor test: “(1) the known character of the arrestee; (2) the risks and dangers faced by the officer; (3) the nature of the offense involved; (4) the chance of the arrestee’s escape if the particular means are not employed; (5) the existence of alternative methods of arrest; (6) the physical size, strength, and weaponry of the officers as compared to the arrestee; and (7) [sic] the exigencies of the moment.” Additionally, the degree of force employed by the officer is also a factual question that would be posed to a jury.

The Fifth Circuit found that reasonable persons could disagree as to Mr. Manis’ character, as some could find that Mr. Manis was being belligerent in refusing to exit the vehicle while others may conclude that he was simply “too inebriated.” The court also believed that a jury could disagree as to whether Mr. Manis appeared to be retrieving a weapon, which would speak to the dangers faced by the officer and whether an alternative method of arrest would have been possible. Lastly, a jury could dispute whether Deputy Zemlik was using reasonable force in firing five shots at Mr. Manis. Thus, the court found that there were genuine issues of material fact presented by the parties’ evidence and reversed the lower court’s finding for summary judgment.

In any civil action, it is important to have an attorney who can identify and present all relevant facts and evidence in your favor.

If you feel that you have a wrongful death or an excessive force claim against a police officer, contact the Bernaird Law Firm for a free consultation at 504-527-6225.