Jury Award Paralyzed Man $28 Million – Most ever in Chicago Cop Case
October 26, 1999
By: Matt O’Connor and Lola Smallwood Chicago Tribune
With surprising swiftness, a federal jury on Monday awarded $28 million to the family of a man who suffered a paralyzing injury in an alleged beating by a Chicago police officer and was left “a prisoner in his own body,” as his lawyers put it.
Blows to the back of Joseph Regalado’s neck or head ripped an artery, cutting off blood to his brain and leaving him unable to talk or walk or care for his basic needs but still conscious and aware of his surroundings, according to testimony at the two-week trial.
In just two hours, the jury decided that in June 1991, Officer Jose Garcia used excessive force on Regalado and that Garcia and his partner, Officer Manuel Acevedo, failed to provide him with medical assistance. They then awarded what some veteran civil rights lawyers believe is by far the largest award of damages ever in a Chicago police misconduct case.
Lawyers for the City of Chicago balked at settling the case for up to $16 million moments before the verdict was read in federal court, according to Regalado’s attorneys, Jon Loevy and Blake Horwitz.
“They rolled the dice and lost,” Loevy said.
The $28 million verdict is believed to far exceed any other award in a police misconduct case in Chicago. Between 1992 and 1998, city records show that there were a combined 1,298 judgments or settlements in police misconduct cases of all kinds, costing the city a total of about $34 million – or an average of about $26,400 each.
City lawyers in the case and both officers declined to comment as they left U.S. District Senior Judge Milton Shadur’s courtroom. But a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said the city will appeal the verdict, adding that Shadur refused to allow its lawyers to introduce what they believed was key evidence in the case.
Regalado’s parents Patricia and Baltasar, and several of his five brothers in attendance for the verdict said they will be unable to put closure to the case as long as the city keeps up the legal battle.
“We just want the city to take responsibility,” said Regalado’s oldest brother, Tony. Regalado’s mother’s eyes welled up with tears as she recalled how her son, before his traumatic injuries, loved to grill ribs and barbecue chicken.
His brothers described him as a 215-pound class clown, always cracking jokes. He also enjoyed working on cars and had been accepted into carpentry school.
Now, Regalado spends his days staring blankly out of the living room window of his parents’ split-level home in Hickory Hills. His family takes turns caring for him 24 hours a day in a steel hospital bed that looks out of place between a cocoa-colored love seat and a faux-brick fireplace. Unable to swallow, he is fed liquids through a tube; his diaper must be changed throughout the day; and he must be physically turned every two hours to prevent bed sores.
Containers of wet towelettes, cans of liquid dietary supplements and boxes of rubber surgical gloves line living room coffee tables instead of family photos. Above his bed is a shrine complete with colorful paintings of Christ and a prayer that starts off “Thank Thee Lord: For every hour of the day…”
“I told him, ‘We won,’ and he smiled,” said Regalado’s mother while tenderly rubbing her son’s atrophied foot. Though the part of his brain controlling motor functions was damaged, he can respond to simple questions with blinks of the eye – one for yes, two for no. Except for a brief smile and a few eye blinks, Regalado lay motionless Monday as his family and attorneys discussed the verdict.
Unable to call Regalado as a witness, his lawyers played a 15-minute videotape during the trial, illustrating a typical day in his life.
According to testimony, on the day of his injuries in 1991, Regalado, then 26, had been drinking alcohol much of the day at an outdoor party on Chicago’s Southwest Side when he got into a quarrel with his girlfriend. Someone flagged a passing Chicago police squad car. When Garcia called him over, Regalado, who had a warrant outstanding for unpaid traffic tickets, took off running. Garcia gave chase and caught him a vacant lot, but Garcia testified that moments later Regalado broke free, knocking Garcia off balance and sending the officer’s glasses flying.
As he was about to catch up to him again, Garcia testified that Regalado staggered and fell without the officer every laying a hand on him. But Richard Torres, who came forward just 1 ½ years ago to say he witnessed the assault, gave a dramatically different account.
As he looked on in the dark from about five houses away, Torres, then 16 and out past curfew, said he saw a uniformed police officer chasing someone and then saw the officer strike him three or four times on the back of the head or neck with what Torres said could have been his baton or flashlight.
After the victim fell face down to the ground, the officer put a knee to his back, forcefully jerked his head up and smacked him on the face with an open, Torres testified. It wasn’t a week later that Torres found out the victim was Regalado.
According to medical experts called by his lawyers, Regalado had an artery torn in the back of his neck from blunt trauma, cutting off blood to his brain and causing a stroke. Regalado went some 15 hours without medical attention, worsening the brain damage, according to the medical experts.
Friends, unaware of the beating and thinking he was passed out from drinking, carried him back to the party, propped him in a lawn chair, shaved his legs and eyebrows and marked up his body with coloring pens, according to testimony.
In a report prepared shortly after the incident, a doctor who treated Regalado the next day said he had cuts and bruises all over his body in addition to the paralyzing neck injury. Medical experts for the plaintiff said those injuries couldn’t be caused by a fall.
The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards and remain on the force, according to Regalado’s lawyers.
Jennifer Hoyle, the spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, said Shadur blocked city lawyers from presenting evidence that the damage to Regalado’s brain could have been caused by his smoking a PCP-laced cigarette that day.
But Regalado’s lawyers derided the suggestion as “junk science”.