A jury found Thursday that Anaheim police were largely responsible for the death of a 35-year-old transient in a scuffle with officers three years ago, awarding his parents nearly $1.8 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.
The actual award was $2,275,000, but because Eisinger was found to have contributed to his own death, it will be whittle down to about $1.8 million, attorneys said. Other costs of litigation will be added to the award, however.
Eisinger got into a struggle with Anaheim police just after midnight on March 2, 2018, and died eight days later.
Outside the courthouse, Eisinger’s mother said she was “very excited, happy. We won. We won justice for Chris… He shouldn’t have died that night. I miss him so much.”
Katrina Eisinger said the verdict “sends a message… that police lie.” She said her son “would be so proud of me. I told him I would protect him and never give up.”
She and her attorney, Annee Della Donna, called on Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer to reopen an investigation of the officers involved in the arrest. They were previously cleared of any criminal wrongdoing under Spitzer’s predecessor.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the officers were at fault for sitting him up after they restrained him, contributing to the lack of oxygen to the brain they said killed him. But the jury did not find any negligence with regard to the first aid rendered by officers. Instead, the case came down to the plaintiffs’ attorneys arguments that the officers held Eisinger down with knees on his back.
Before the trial, the attorneys for Eisinger’s parents held a news conference and compared the case to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police. Former Officer Derek Chauvin last week was convicted of murder in Floyd’s death.
Eric Dubin, who represents Eisinger’s father, Greg, said the key difference is he and Della Donna did not have cell phone camera footage from bystanders and had to build their case around body-worn camera footage from the officers.
“When we took this case in 2018 there was no George Floyd,” Dubin said. “When George Floyd happened I thought everything would change, but it didn’t. (Anaheim’s attorneys) kept to the same old dinosaur response. When (Eisinger died) we had nothing but the officers who were witnesses and they said they don’t recall, don’t remember.”
Dubin said the city’s police officials “controlled the narrative” and held a news conference alleging Eisinger had a metal pipe, which turned out to be erroneous. “They ran with that all the way through trial.”
Mike Lyster, a spokesman for the city, said officials “respectfully disagree with the outcome.”
He added, “Our officers responded to a resident’s call for help on a burglary in progress. At all times, our officers acted responsibly in their duty to uphold public safety. At no time did they use force that could be seen as excessive for the challenging situation they faced. Any loss of life is tragic.”
Referring to Eisinger’s issues with drug addiction, Lyster added, “Sadly, this case speaks to the devastating and undeniable impact of methamphetamine on people, families and communities.”
Lyster also rejected comparisons from the plaintiffs’ attorneys to Floyd’s death.
“We join so many in welcoming the (Derek) Chauvin verdict and condemning the death of George Floyd,” Lyster said. “But this case was unique in facts, circumstance and people. Trying to tie this incident to what we saw in Minneapolis does a disservice to all involved. Regardless of outcome, our hearts go out to the Eisinger family. As a city, we will evaluate this outcome and consider any next steps.”
The attorneys representing Eisinger’s mother, who is Black, and his father, who is white, alleged that the officers ignored his complaints that he could not breathe.
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 Dubin, who had sought $30 million in damages.
Dubin said in his closing argument that 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. 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.
Della Donna told the jury that the officers putting their knees and body weight on her client’s son was what killed 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 formerly a good student who made the honor roll and was a well-liked manager at an Albertsons grocery store, Della Donna said.
Dubin said 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.
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.