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News / Nation & World

San Diego County to pay $12M over beating and stun gun death

The Columbian
Published: January 20, 2023, 7:44pm

SAN DIEGO (AP) — San Diego County will pay $12 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a man who died after he was beaten, shocked with a stun gun and hogtied by sheriff’s deputies in 2015.

The settlement approved by a judge this week ends a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Lucky Phounsy’s widow and two young children.

It is a far lower payout than the $85 million that a jury awarded in the case last March. At the time, it was the nation’s largest civil rights award for a custody death.

However, a federal judge threw out that award in August, saying it was “far out of proportion to the evidence” in the case.

Phounsy, 32, died after an April 13, 2015 confrontation with nearly a dozen San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, including one who later served jail time for assaulting women while on duty.

Phounsy was at the Santee home of a relative for a family get-together when he called 911 and told dispatchers that his family was in danger, although other family members then told dispatchers that he was suffering a mental health crisis.

Deputies who arrived at the home said Phounsy clawed, bit and punched them as they tried to handcuff him. Phounsy was struck with a baton, shocked with a stun gun several times and restrained by tying his bound ankles to his handcuffs. His heart stopped on the way to the hospital. He was resuscitated, but died several days later.

The county medical examiner concluded his death was accidental and the result of the long struggle with deputies. The medical examiner also found that Phounsy had been in a drug-related psychotic state and noted that he had taken the drug ecstasy several days earlier.

The family’s attorneys said there were no illegal drugs in Phounsy’s system and contended that he was delusional because he was suffering from severe insomnia and had gone 72 hours without sleep.

The case was tried twice in federal court. In September 2021, a jury deadlocked and could not reach a verdict, followed by last year’s trial where a jury decided on the $85 million award after only a day of deliberation.

The judge who later threw out the award did uphold jury findings that deputies were negligent and used excessive force in restraining Phounsy.

The $12 million settlement brings settlements or awards against the county for law enforcement actions to more than $20 million in less than two years.

In June, the county agreed to pay $8.1 million to the family of Nicholas Bils, who was shot in the back by a deputy in 2020 after he escaped from a patrol car outside the downtown central jail. The deputy, Aaron Russell, later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a year in jail.

The county currently is contesting a $5 million award made in October to a man who was struck by a deputy and bitten by a police dog during a 2014 traffic stop in Fallbrook.