Christopher Tortu claimed Las Vegas police used excessive force in 2001 by squeezing his testicles after he was arrested for boarding a Southwest Airlines plane without a ticket.
The case went to trial in 2006 and, in the case of one officer, jurors agreed with Tortu’s claim.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Jones reversed the jury’s decision, saying Tortu’s attorneys lacked substantive evidence to show Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Officer Eugene Engle used excessive force.
This week, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the jury’s verdict, which included a $175,000 compensatory award and punitive damages of $5,000 for Tortu.
“My client is elated,” said attorney Al Lasso, who represented Tortu. “He feels vindicated. I hope the jury also feels vindicated. As a group, they came up with a decision only to have it overturned by one individual.”
After a four-day trial, it took jurors four hours to reach their verdict.
Karen Savage, the forewoman of the jury, declined to comment Wednesday on the appeals court ruling.
The appeals court noted that jurors heard both Tortu and Engle’s version of the 2001 incident at McCarran International Airport.
Tortu claims that three officers escorted him down a jetway, onto the tarmac and into a police vehicle. Tortu said he was punched in the head and torso and thrown onto the hood of a police sport utility vehicle.
Tortu claimed that while he was handcuffed and sitting in the backseat, Engle reached into the vehicle, grabbed his testicles and squeezed them for 10 seconds.
Jurors did not find against two other officers named in the lawsuit, Richard Cashton and Duane Cowley.
Officers said Tortu resisted arrest and was combative. They said he caused his injuries when he was trying to avoid being arrested.
The incident occurred after Tortu and a friend lost their boarding passes while waiting for their flight on July 9, 2001.
Tortu’s friend went to the security area to retrieve the found passes, but while he was gone, the airline announced last call for passengers.
Airline employees refused to allow Tortu on the airplane, but he followed a crew member to the aircraft and boarded.
When he refused to deplane, police were called.
After the trial, Jones said the jury’s verdict was “irrational” and Tortu’s testimony was not credible. For example, Jones questioned how Engle, who is short, could reach into a sport utility vehicle and grab Tortu’s testicles.
Tortu’s examining doctors testified that his testicles were swollen, tender and bruised after the incident. The injuries could have resulted from the officers’ actions, the doctor said.
“Though the defendants, and an additional officer at the scene, denied that the testicle squeezing occurred, the medical evidence showed definite injury to the testicles for which Engle afforded no explanation,” the appeals court ruling says.
The appeals panel suggested that Jones rejected the jury’s verdict because he did not believe the medical evidence presented.
“In finding the jury’s decision mistaken and ungrounded, the district court took its own view of the medical evidence in place of the jury’s — an impermissible practice,” the appeals court decision says.
Lasso said Jones’ decision to toss out the jury’s verdict is highly unusual. He estimated it happens in less than 1 percent of all trials.
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.