SANTA ANA (CNS) - A jury found today that Anaheim police were largely responsible for the death of a transient in a scuffle with officers three years ago, awarding his parents nearly $2.3 million in damages.
The panel deliberated for about 5 1/2 days before reaching the verdict and determining that the officers were 78% responsible for Christopher Eisinger's death, and the transient was responsible for the rest. The trial lasted six weeks.
Eisinger got into a struggle with Anaheim police just after midnight on March 2, 2018, and died eight days later.
The attorneys representing Eisinger's mother, who is Black, and his father, who is white, said the officers ignored his complaints that he could not breathe and before the trial compared the case to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police.
Attorneys for the city argued that their officers were using a technique to avoid fighting with the suspect and just restraining him and were not negligent. They also disputed there was any evidence that he said he could not breathe, as alleged by Eric Dubin, who represents Eisinger's father.
Dubin, who asked jurors for $30 million in damages, said Eisinger can be heard on video saying, “I can't breathe, pretty sick, pretty sick, dude pull me up. Look, he's on my face.''
Dubin added, “Ignoring these pleas for help was negligence, it was cold, it was indifference to life, sickening.''
Eisinger's voice “tapered down'' as he lost consciousness, the attorney told the jury. “That is a sign of someone who needs immediate medical care. It's negligence on two counts. They let it happen and then didn't save him when they put him in that peril.... You don't have to go to medical school for 30 years to know this guy is choking out on tape.''
Eisinger was not resisting attempts to handcuff him, according to Dubin.
“This violent struggle is not him trying to commit more petty larceny,'' he said. “This is the fight to breathe. This is what your body does when you're fighting to breathe.''
Dubin faulted officers for not fetching a breathing bag for Eisinger and said they improperly sat him up, which led to “positional asphyxia. They would have been better off if they left him on his back until paramedics got there.''
Dubin said they also failed to attempt CPR, alleging the officers were more interested in finding a methamphetamine pipe at the scene.
“He's going to die, but, guess what, I can put in the report I got the pipe,'' he said.
Dubin also attacked the testimony of Dr. Nicole Ellis, the forensic pathologist who performed Eisinger's autopsy and concluded that he had an enlarged heart and suffered from 70% to 75% artery blockage. Ellis said the cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest due to heart disease and the effects of methamphetamine abuse.
Dubin said investigators “didn't tell her anything'' about the struggle with Eisinger before the autopsy. He said Ellis testified that she was told “there was some kind of struggle, but I don't really know any specifics. What she said, there's no credibility at all.''
An expert for the plaintiffs contradicted Ellis, Dubin said.
“It wasn't drugs (that caused Eisinger's death),'' he said, telling jurors that the level of methamphetamine in Eisinger's system was “non toxic'' and that Eisinger “went unconscious under the body weight'' of the officers pinning him down.
Dubin also noted that officers announced at a news conference that Eisinger had a metal pipe when he was confronted, but it turned out to be a “party popper'' that was pink and turquoise and emitted confetti.
Eisinger struggled with drug addiction and seemed to turn things around following a stint in rehab that his parents insisted on, but then relapsed in the weeks before his death, Dubin said.
Attorney Annee Della Donna, who represents Eisinger's mother, argued that the officers put their knees and body weight on her client's son, killing him. She said Eisinger sustained five bone fractures to his face.
“You're supposed to be trained if you wear that badge to know an agonal breath is not breathing,'' Della Donna said. “That is the last sound you make before you die and you have to trained to render medical aid, especially when you're the reason they're unconscious. This is another sad case of parents burying their son, killed at the hands of police.''
She said that a day before his death, Eisinger sent his mother a text, saying he was trying to turn things around and asked her to pray for him. Eisinger was a good student who made the honor roll and was a well-liked manager at an Albertsons grocery store, Della Donna said.
Attorney Steven Rothans, who represents the city, asked jurors to consider whether Eisinger's heart disease and use of meth “played a role in his death.''
He also asked, “Did his physical exertion and struggle and agitation with Anaheim officers play a role in his death? Did Mr. Eisinger's repeated acts of resistance and resistance of officers' attempt to handcuff and restrain him play a role in his death?''
Rothans said Eisinger's attorneys failed to produce evidence they promised in opening statements that there were eight officers with “800 pounds and knees on his neck and knees on his back.''
He said Della Donna told the jury that the officers did not try to “save his life because of the color of his skin. That's despicable. We've been here six weeks. Did you hear any evidence that any of the police officers took the actions they did because of the color of Chris' skin?''
Rothans said only the plaintiffs' paid expert said sitting Eisinger up posed a health risk.
The officers all graduated from certified police academies and were trained in the Platform, Efficiency and Proficiency, or PEP, method, a “technique to refocus officers from striking and extensive use of force to capture techniques,'' Rothans said. “It was taught to Anaheim police officers just a matter of months before and they implemented it with Mr. Eisinger.''
Police encountered Eisinger when responding to reports of someone trying to break into cars at a mobile home park, Rothans said. A suspect then hopped a 12-foot fence into a backyard and was trying to break into a home, he said.
The first officer on scene, a sergeant, tried to question Eisinger, who took off running, Rothans said.
“Why did he jump a 12-foot fence into a backyard?'' Rothans said. “And in that jump over a 12-foot fence, might he have injured himself? And what was he doing trying to get into the ... home at midnight?''
The officers had probable cause to detain Eisinger, he said.
“The most reasonable thing for Mr. Eisinger to do was to stop and talk to'' the officer, Rothans said. “Flight, unprovoked flight, is an indicia, frankly, of consciousness of guilt.''
Rothans disputed that officers placed a knee on Eisinger's neck or his head.
“Did anyone hear, ‘I can't breathe''' on the videos, Rothans said. “I've listened to that numerous times and I couldn't hear anyone say, ‘I can't breathe.'''
Rothans said there were no injuries on Eisinger consistent with heavy body weight on his neck. And there was no evidence of burst blood vessels in the eyes from choking, he said.
Rothans said if jurors find negligence, they should award $165,000 to Eisinger's mother and $80,000 to his father.
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