San Diego County will pay $12 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a man who died after being beaten, shocked with stun guns and tied to the hogties 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’s a far lower payout than the $85 million a jury awarded in the case last March. At the time, it was the nation’s largest civil rights award for a death in custody.
However, a federal judge overturned that award in August, saying it was “disproportionate to the evidence” in the case.
Phounsy, 32, died on April 13, 2015 after a confrontation with nearly a dozen San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, including one who later served in prison for assaulting women on duty.
Phounsy was at a family reunion at a relative’s home in Santee when he called 911 and told dispatchers that his family was in danger, although other family members then told dispatchers that he was suffering from a mental health crisis.
MPs who arrived at the house said Phounsy clawed, bit and hit them as they tried to handcuff him. Phounsy was beaten with a baton, shocked several times with a stun gun, and restrained by tying his shackled ankles to his handcuffs. On the way to the hospital, his heart stopped. He was revived but died a few days later.
The county coroner concluded that his death was an accident and the result of the long struggle with the deputies. The coroner also determined that Phounsy had been in a drug-related psychotic state and noted that he had taken the drug ecstasy a few days earlier.
The family’s lawyers said there were no illegal drugs in Phounsy’s system and claimed he was delusional because he suffered from severe insomnia and went 72 hours without sleep.
The case was tried twice in federal court. In September 2021, a jury reached an impasse and was unable to reach a verdict, followed by last year’s court case in which a jury ruled on the $85 million award after just one day of deliberation.
The judge, who later overturned the award, upheld the jury’s findings that the deputies had been negligent and had used excessive force to restrain Phounsy.
The $12 million settlement brings settlements or premiums against the District for Law Enforcement 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 fleeing a squad car outside the central jail downtown. Rep. Aaron Russell later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to one year in prison.
The county is currently contesting a $5 million award that was given in October to a man who was beaten by a deputy and bitten by a police dog during a traffic stop in Fallbrook in 2014.