Skip to Main Content

City of Stockton Agrees to Settle Wrongful Death Claim for $6 Million (Victim Died in Police Custody)

According to a report from KQED, the City of Stockton has reached a $6 million settlement in a wrongful death claim. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of a man who died in law enforcement custody in 2020. Shayne Sutherland was reportedly held down face first for approximately eight minutes by two officers of the Stockton Police Department. Here, our Stockton wrongful death attorney discusses the case, the settlement, and the law in more detail. 

The Incident: Man Dies While Detained By Stockton Police Department

During the early morning hours of October 8th, 2020, Shayne Sutherland, 29, encountered Stockton Police officers Ronald Zalunardo and John Afanasiev at a local convenience store. According to KQED, Mr. Sutherland was reported acting in an erratic manner. He had asked the clerk of the store to provide him with a phone to call for a taxi. The store clerk that reports the Mr. Sutherland threatened him using a wine bottle. The situation escalated and the Stockton Police Department was called to the scene. 

Unfortunately, things quickly turned tragic. The police response involved tackling Sutherland to the ground and holding him face down. Despite being handcuffed quickly—the two officers kept him in a very vulnerable position for around eight minutes. During that period, it is reported that Officer Afanasiev placed significant weight on Sutherland’s back. Shayne Sutherland was killed in the incident. Cardiac arrest was the reported cause. Through, a second autopsy commissioned by the victim’s family later identified the cause as positional asphyxia.

A Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Was Filed Against Stockton and Specific Officers

In response to Shayne Sutherland’s tragic death, his family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Stockton, the involved officers, and the (now former) Police Chief of the Stockton Police Department, Eric Jones. The lawsuit cited wrongful death, negligence, and excessive use of force. A key part of the wrongful death lawsuit centered around the use of prone restraint by police officers. That tactic has been shown to increase the risk of positional asphyxia. Broadly defined, asphyxia is a condition where the body’s position prevents adequate breathing and can lead to death. 

Wrongful Death Reached Between City of Stockton and Family of Victim

After multiple years of legal proceedings and intense public scrutiny, the City of Stockton has reached a settlement agreement for the wrongful death lawsuit. As part of the agreement, the City will pay $6 million to Shayne Sutherland’s family. As reported by KEQD, Karen Sutherland, Shayne’s mother, sees the agreement as an acknowledgment of responsibility by the Stockton Police for her son’s wrongful death. The settlement will be distributed to Sutherland’s surviving young children and his mother. It aims to provide some form of restitution for their profound loss. Notably, there have been more comprehensive legislative changes made in California because of this terrible incident. California’s Assembly Bill 490 prohibits police maneuvers that risk positional asphyxia. 

An Overview of Section 1983 Lawsuits (Option of Victims of Police Excessive Force)

The family of Shayne Sutherland filed a wrongful death claim as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit. That lawsuit falls under Section 1983. Section 1983 lawsuits allow individuals to sue state and local government officials for violations of their constitutional rights, including cases of wrongful death due to police misconduct. These legal actions are instrumental in holding law enforcement accountable for excessive force and other civil rights infringements. When excessive force by a police officer causes a death, Section 1983 may be the basis of a wrongful death claim. Here are some key points that families should understand about the law:

  • Liability Requires Acts Under “Color of Law”: For liability under Section 1983, the defendant—usually a police officer—must have been acting under the “color of law.” In other words, they must have been exercising powers associated with any level of government authority. The requirement is crucial as it distinguishes private misconduct from actions taken by government officials or agents in the course of their duties. 
  • Excessive Force is Highly Case-Specific: Determining whether force used by law enforcement was excessive under Section 1983 involves a detailed analysis of the specific circumstances of each case. Some key factors that must be considered include: 1) The threat posed by the suspect, 2) The level of force applied, an 3) The urgency of the situation. A thorough investigation of each case is an absolute must. A top-tier Stockton wrongful death attorney will comprehensively investigate the incident—gathering relevant evidence.
  • Wrongful Death Claims Compensate Family:  Wrongful death claims provide monetary compensation to the family members of a deceased person when their death results from someone else’s negligent or intentional act. The compensation typically covers financial losses such as funeral expenses and lost future earnings, as well as non-economic damages like loss of companionship and emotional distress.
  • Punitive Damages May Be Awarded in Section 1983 Case: In Section 1983 cases, punitive damages can be awarded if the defendant’s actions were willfully oppressive, malicious, or recklessly indifferent to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. These damages are not intended to compensate the victim but rather to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future, emphasizing accountability in cases of egregious misconduct.
  • A Two-Year Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death: Section 1983 lawsuits are subject to a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in California. The family of the victim generally has two years from the date of the incident to file a civil rights claim. 

Get Help From a Wrongful Death Attorney in Stockton, CA

At Redkey Gordon Law Corp, our California wrongful death attorney is a skilled, experienced advocate for grieving families. If you have any questions about wrongful death laws, we are here to help. Call us now or contact us online for a free review of your case. With a law office in Stockton, we represent grieving families throughout the region, including in Sutter Creek, Lodi, and Manteca.