CALIFORNIA – A Sacramento federal judge has ordered damages of more than $2 million assessed against two California Highway Patrol officers, the agency itself, and the state in the death of a 21-year-old Stockton man.
In a four-page order and judgment Monday, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she interprets a somewhat ambiguous jury verdict in January to reflect the panel’s intention to assess economic damages of $6,000 and non-economic damages of $1 million against each of the officers, Michael Walling and Stephen Coffman, for shooting to death Joseph Pinasco Jr.
She also ruled that the CHP and the state are jointly liable for the $2,012,000 in judgments against Walling and Coffman.
In court papers and oral arguments since the verdict, the two sides differed on how to decipher the trial’s outcome, and Mueller sided with Arnold Wolf, attorney for Pinasco’s parents, Joseph and Toni Pinasco, who sued over their son’s death.
The parents own a Stockton plumbing and heating company.
Attorneys for the defendants argued the award should be reduced based on a comparative-fault analysis, in which the young man presumably would be found partially to blame.
But Mueller said, “A fair reading of the verdict is that the jury based its wrongful death determination on the officers’ wrongful acts. Accordingly, principles of comparative fault are inapplicable.”
The state is expected to appeal.
Walling and Coffman are still CHP officers, and Walling was promoted to sergeant after the incident.
They responded in the early hours of Aug. 24, 2008, to reports of street racing. Pinasco, who had been drinking with friends that night, was sitting in a parked pickup in the vicinity of the purported racing. As the officers approached in their car, he pulled away and led them on a high-speed chase. The pickup spun out of control on a dirt road and got stuck in a ditch in a rural area of eastern San Joaquin County.
Walling and Coffman exited their car and drew their guns. Pinasco was still seated behind the steering wheel of the truck and, as Walling approached, he started accelerating and rocking the pickup in an attempt to escape the ditch.
The officers yelled commands for Pinasco to stop and show his hands and Walling banged on the pickup’s windshield with his flashlight, but the truck continued to rock and the officers perceived it was getting traction in Coffman’s direction.
Both officers fired their weapons at Pinasco. They did so, they say, based on a shared fear that Coffman would be seriously injured or killed.
In one of the few differences on the facts, Wolf claims in court papers that the truck was traveling away from the officers as Pinasco began to extricate it from the ditch. It traveled 19 feet before coming to rest against a fence.
Of the 23 shots fired by the officers, six hit Pinasco in the head, face and neck, and one hit his left thigh. He was pronounced dead at the scene. His blood-alcohol level was measured at nearly three times the legal limit for driving.
In early 2009, the CHP’s investigative services unit issued a report concluding the shooting was justified because the pickup was moving toward Coffman. In April 2009, the San Joaquin County district attorney issued a report with the same finding.
According to Wolf’s trial brief, “Neither report bears any resemblance to (another unit of the CHP’s) reconstruction of the pickup truck’s movement before and during the shooting,” or to the state Department of Justice’s analysis of the bullets’ trajectory, “neither of which suggested that the pickup’s movement ever jeopardized Coffman.”