A San Diego federal jury returned a $85-million verdict against the county this week, finding in favor of the family of a man who died after sheriff’s deputies restrained him during his 2015 arrest in Santee.
The award is believed to be among the largest civil verdicts against the county.
Lucky Phounsy’s family sued the county, alleging several violations including excessive force, negligence and wrongful death. The verdict came Tuesday after nearly a day of deliberations.
“I think this verdict was about accountability,” attorney Gerald Singleton, who represented the family, said Wednesday. “They have a lot of very good officers who do this job, but they don’t do any kind of a decent job getting rid of the bad apples.”
The jury also found against former Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Fischer, who was in the back of the ambulance with Phounsy after a combative arrest. In 2019, Fischer pleaded guilty to battery charges in an unrelated case following accusations brought by 16 women who said he had fondled, hugged or tried to kiss them. The Phounsy jury was made aware of that case.
The jury in the Phounsy case indicated on the verdict form that it found Fischer used excessive force and that was a proximate cause of Phounsy’s injury or death.
The jury also faulted the county for failing to properly train deputies and found four people had been negligent. It found no negligence by the 32-year-old Phounsy.
The Sheriff’s Department issued a statement Wednesday, saying it is aware of the verdict and appreciated the jury’s work on the case.
“In the days and weeks to come, the Department will meet with counsel to evaluate the verdict further,” the department said. “As always, our ultimate goal is to provide exceptional law enforcement services in San Diego County.”
Asked for comment, a county spokesperson issued a statement saying, “We will review the case and decide next steps. Until then, we have no comment on the case.”
The verdict form indicates the jury awarded $5 million for the suffering Phounsy experienced from the arrest until his death and $80 million to his family for loss of his love, companionship and more.
The verdict “reflects the value that the San Diego community places on the loss of a husband and father like Lucky Phounsy,” said attorney Timothy Scott, who also represented the family at trial.
“The county should expect more results like this if continues to make the choices it made in this case,“ he said.
The arrest happened in April 2015 during a birthday party for Phounsy’s then-2-year-old son at a family member’s Santee home.
According to the lawsuit, Phounsy was suffering from severe insomnia — there were no illegal drugs in his system, his attorneys said — and after 72 hours without sleep, he grew increasingly paranoid. He started hearing things and believed someone was preparing to harm him, his wife and their two young children, including an infant daughter.
Phounsy called 911 to report that someone was trying to harm him. Deputies arrived, and Phounsy grew “frightened and confused” when they tried to handcuff him, the suit contends.
“The deputies did nothing to de-escalate the situation, as they were aggressive and profane,” the suit says.
A struggle followed, and deputies shot Phounsy with a Taser at least three times, and punched and hit him with a baton, the suit says.
Several more deputies arrived. Deputies tackled and then restrained Phounsy “violently and in an unsafe manner” and carried him outside.
Phounsy was put in an ambulance “still hog-tied, and restrained either face down or on his side,” the family said in the suit. A spit sock was placed over his head.
He stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating before he arrived at the hospital, according to the suit. He was revived, but never recovered, and died a few days later.
In a court filing, the county argued that Phounsy charged, bit, punched and clawed at deputies during the encounter.
Several first responders — including deputies and paramedics — were identified as defendants in the lawsuit, but were later dismissed. Some reached pretrial settlements.
Of the $5 million awarded to the family for Phounsy’s suffering, the jury awarded $2 million for suffering he endured before he was placed in the ambulance and $3 million for suffering endured from that point until his death.
The $85-million award eclipses previous awards against the county in recent memory.
The county faced a large verdict in 2019, when state jury awarded $12.6 million in favor of a North County man who had been suffering from a viral infection and near-fatal sodium deficiency when he was found outside his home and arrested on suspicion of public intoxication in 2016. Once in custody, he hit his head and sustained a life-altering head injury.
A trial judge later reduced the amount roughly in half. Before it was cut, the original verdict exceeded all judgments and awards against San Diego County over the prior 30 years combined, the Union-Tribune reported in 2019.