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Larry G. Nelson v. Ronald Lis

September 27, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer


Plaintiff Larry G. Nelson alleges that four Chicago police officers violated his civil rights during a traffic stop on February 11, 2008. A jury found in favor of each of the Defendants-Officers Ronald Lis, Elizabeth Wilson, Richard Novotny, and Bradley Ruzak-and Plaintiff now moves for a new trial, to set aside the verdict, and for sanctions. The court is satisfied that its evidentiary rulings were correct and that the jury's verdict is supported by the evidence. The court did, however, adopt an instruction proposed by Defendants that departs in a potentially prejudicial way from the Seventh Circuit pattern instruction. Although the court corrected that instruction during the jury's deliberations, it now concludes the error requires a new trial. For the reasons explained here, Plaintiff's motion for a new trial is granted. His remaining motions are denied.


In this lawsuit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Nelson alleged that he was stopped and detained without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Prior to trial, all four Defendants acknowledged, in response to a request to admit facts, that they had "no present recollection of probable cause or reasonable suspicion sufficient for the arrest or stop of Larry Nelson on February 11, 2008." Plaintiff Nelson did recall the events of February 11, 2008, and testified as follows: At 9:30 p.m. that evening, Larry Nelson was driving his car out of a gas station near the intersection of North Pulaski and West Iowa in Chicago when he was pulled over by four police officers in two squad cars. (Trial Tr., 193, 197, 383.) Plaintiff testified that after he pulled his car to the side of the road, he turned the car off, took the keys out of the ignition, and raised his hands in the air. (Id. at 198.) One officer-later identified as Bradley Ruzak-approached the car with his gun drawn, and Plaintiff recalls seeing a laser sight pointed at his face. (Id. at 198.) At some point, other Defendants, including Richard Novotny, also approached Nelson's vehicle. (Id. at 199.) Nelson testified that the officers issued conflicting instructions: Ruzak told him, "Don't move or I'll blast your ass," and Novotny ordered him to exit his car. (Id.) Plaintiff claims Novotny opened the car door, handcuffed Plaintiff, and removed him from the vehicle. (Id. at 201.) Then, Plaintiff testified, he was left handcuffed near one of the police cars while all four officers searched his car. (Id. at 206.) When the officers finished searching the car, they released Nelson from the handcuffs and directed him to leave. (Id. at 208.)

I. Motion for New Trial

Plaintiff's Rule 59 motion challenges the verdict for Defendants on both grounds that support such a motion: he argues that prejudicial errors occurred at trial and that the verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. See Romero v. Cincinnati, Inc., 171 F.3d 1091, 1096 (7th Cir. 1999) (identifying these two categories of reasons for granting relief under Rule 59). For the reasons set forth below, the court grants Plaintiff's motion for new trial based on a potentially prejudicial error in the jury instructions, which overstated the elements necessary to establish liability in § 1983 false arrest cases. Plaintiff's remaining evidentiary concerns, however, are insufficient to support his Rule 59 motion and the court rejects Plaintiff's argument that the jury's verdict was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.

A. "Harm" Instruction

Plaintiff's most compelling argument in this regard relates to an error in the elements instruction. Plaintiff takes issue with the court's initial instruction regarding the elements of Plaintiff's false arrest claim. The court instructed that in order to prevail, Plaintiff was required "to prove each of these things by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) that plaintiff was illegally stopped and seized by defendant; (2) that defendants did not have probable cause to seize plaintiff; and (3) that because of the unreasonable seizure, the plaintiff was harmed." (Trial Tr. at 598-99.) Plaintiff argues that the third element is improper because it led the jury to believe that Plaintiff had to demonstrate physical harm in order to succeed in his claims. In fact, the jury twice submitted questions to the court that involved the "harm" element. (Id. at 680, 689-90.)*fn1 In addressing these questions, the court recognized that the instruction it had given, proposed by Defendants, is inconsistent with the Seventh Circuit Pattern Instruction No. 7.05. (Id. at 693.)*fn2 The court then withdrew that instruction (Id. at 901-04.), but Plaintiff argues that the damage had been done, and that the jury's verdict was infected by its misunderstanding concerning his burden.

1. Waiver

Defendants acknowledge the instruction they proposed overstated Plaintiff's burden, but they argue that this error does not require a new trial. They argue, first, that Plaintiff has waived the right to challenge the instruction by failure to object to it. See FED. R. CIV. P. 51(c) (parties must alert the district court specifically of perceived errors in jury instructions). To satisfy the requirements of Rule 51, "the grounds of the objection must be stated with enough specificity so that the trial judge is adequately apprised of the legal or factual basis for the objection." Guerts v. Barth, 892 F.2d 622, 624 (7th Cir. 1989); see also Schobert v. Ill. Dep't of Transp., 304 F.3d 725, 729 (7th Cir. 2002) ("The objection must be specific enough that the nature of the error is brought into focus."). Defendants contend Plaintiff's comments at the instructions conference did not meet this standard:

Mr. Kamionski (Defendants' counsel):

I -- the more I look at it, I'm okay with it, I think, except I think one more element should be added that he has to be damaged or harmed. Other than that, I am okay with it.

Ms. Dymkar (Plaintiff's counsel):

But that's addressed elsewhere, Your Honor. This is a definition ...

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