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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Family awarded $2 million in Taser trial; jurors blame Canton police training

May 20, 2009
By Edd Pritchard, CantonRep.com

CLEVELAND — Jurors didn’t like what they saw on the video shown in federal court during the past week, but they didn’t blame the police officers for what was happening.

Instead the jury placed blame with the officers’ bosses — essentially the City of Canton — for not providing proper training.

The tape showed four Canton policemen trying to subdue Shawn Pirolozzi the night of June 13, 2005. Police had been called because Pirolozzi — naked and bleeding from cuts on his body — was wandering in the 2400 block of Fourth Street NW and jumping at vehicles in the street. Callers described him as acting crazy.

Police said Pirolozzi resisted arrest. They used pepper spray and a Taser, then punched, kicked and stood on Pirolozzi before subduing him. Pirolozzi died minutes later at Aultman Hospital.

On Tuesday afternoon, jurors in U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin’s court blamed the city for Pirolozzi’s death. The panel awarded $2.075 million to Pirolozzi’s estate. The jury said the city should pay $2 million for the Pirolozzi family’s loss and $75,000 for Pirolozzi’s pain and suffering.

The jury didn’t award punitive damages, which the Pirolozzi family’s lawyer described in closing arguments as a way to punish the city and police for their actions.

The ruling doesn’t mean the case is over. Lawyers for the city and Pirolozzi’s family said they will consider appeals.


Juror Devin Gutkowski, a Cuyahoga County resident, said the 10-member panel believed the police officers actions while dealing with Pirolozzi were wrong, but that they were following city policies and their training.

“It’s like that’s what they do. It’s normal procedure for them,” Gutkowski said.

Jurors didn’t blame the officers, but did believe they could have taken other steps. Gutkowski noted that at one point in the confrontation, police said they had the matter under control. Then another struggle started between officers and Pirolozzi.

“They just kind of lost control of the whole situation it seemed like,” Gutkowski said.

Pirolozzi’s family — after private discussions — declined to comment on the verdict.

Kristen Bates Aylward, a Canton assistant law director, called the verdict perplexing, but said she was “relieved that they did not find against our officers.”


Paul W. Broschay, lawyer for the Pirolozzi family, said he would consider an appeal because of the damage award. During closing arguments, Broschay’s partner in the case — Geoffrey N. Fieger — asked jurors to consider $30 million.

City officials said attempts were made to settle the lawsuit, even during the trial. The Pirolozzi estate lawyers, however, rejected the city’s offers, Aylward said.

The amount will come from city coffers because Canton — back in June 2005 — didn’t have an insurance policy covering incidents such as the one with Pirolozzi.

Aylward said the city also will look at potential appeal options, but didn’t cite a specific reason for appeal. She said there have been a number of issues since the case began and the city will study each.

Both sides agreed — before Gwin announced the verdict — that no appeal would be filed claiming the verdict could be considered inconsistent because the jury didn’t blame officers for their actions.

The city does still have the right to file an appeal arguing the verdict is based on insufficient evidence to show the city’s training is at fault. Officers testified about training they received, but no direct evidence about training was presented.


The original lawsuit claimed Pirolozzi escaped his house after a fire started in the kitchen. The lawsuit said Pirolozzi went outside naked because he had been sleeping and was confused by the smoke. The suit said he was bleeding because of injuries suffered when he broke a window trying to escape the fire.

Police testified that Pirolozzi was combative and tried to take one officer’s gun. Officers said they followed training techniques, including striking Pirolozzi in the jaw in an attempt to knock him unconscious.

Police found food burning on Pirolozzi’s stove. They also found blood splattered through the house and the kitchen in disarray.

The original lawsuit also named the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and one of its agents as a defendant in the case. The agency and agent were dismissed from the case last year.

The agent was riding with a Canton officer that night as part of the city’s gang task force program, and their car responded on the call.


“I have talked with the law director (Joseph Martuccio) and I have said to him to appeal this to all levels we possibly can,” said Councilman Bill Smuckler, D-at large. “We’re going to appeal it until the cows come home.”

Martuccio said the Law Department is “looking at the record (transcript) and looking at the rulings, jury instructions and verdict forms” before making a recommendation to City Council.

An appeal would be filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, he said. A settlement in lieu of an appeal is another option the city could pursue, Martuccio said.

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