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Lopez v. Vidljinovic

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 3, 2017

JOSE LOPEZ, by his wife and next best friend, Sandra Cardiel, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVAN VIDLJINOVIC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN ROBERT BLAKEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is set for a jury trial on February 6, 2017 [155]. On January 30, 2017, the Court held a Final Pretrial Conference and ruled upon: (1) various issues implicated by parties' Proposed Pretrial Order [161]; (2) the parties' motions in limine [164] [165]; (3) Plaintiff's Motion To Compel the Testimony of Mayor Rahm Emanuel [159]; (4) Defendants' Motion To Bifurcate [162]; and (5) Plaintiff's oral motion to amend his complaint. The Court summarized its oral rulings from the Final Pretrial Conference in a written pretrial Order [177].

         Plaintiff has now filed a Motion For Clarification, Or, In The Alternative, For Reconsideration [176]. Plaintiff seeks multiple forms of relief in the present motion, which the Court addresses in order.

         I. Defendants' Motion To Bifurcate

         Plaintiff's first issue concerns the Court's decision to bifurcate the trial into separate phases for liability and damages (if necessary). As previously explained [177], under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) and Seventh Circuit precedent, the Court resolves bifurcation requests under the traditional procedure: “First, the trial judge must determine whether separate trials would avoid prejudice to a party or promote judicial economy. Only one of these criteria-avoidance of prejudice or judicial economy-need be met before a court can order separation. Next, the court must be satisfied that the decision to bifurcate does not unfairly prejudice the non-moving party. Finally, separate trials must not be granted if doing so would violate the Seventh Amendment.” Fetzer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 13-cv-9312, 2016 WL 6833912, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 21, 2016) (internal quotation omitted).

         Bifurcation here serves to avoid unfair prejudice to Defendants. In this case, as in Fetzer, Defendants note that the jury “may improperly consider purely damages evidence when assessing the issue of liability.” Id. And, as in Fetzer, this concern is well-founded given the serious nature of Plaintiff's injuries. Id. There is also no Seventh Amendment problem here, as the Court will empanel the same jury for both phases, if necessary.

         Plaintiff nevertheless seeks reconsideration of this Court's bifurcation ruling, because he believes that he will be prejudiced if the jury, when analyzing “the nature and quality of the intrusion by the officers, ” is precluded from considering “the severity of the brain injury inflicted on Jose Lopez.” [176] at 5. Plaintiff is incorrect.

         Whether Defendants are liable for utilizing excessive force depends upon the objective reasonableness of the force used, in light of the pertinent context and reasonably foreseeable harms. As such, the issue of liability turns upon the reasonableness of the force employed by the Defendants, rather than any unforeseeable results that flowed from that force. See Sherrod v. Berry, 856 F.2d 802, 804-05 (7th Cir. 1988) (“When a jury measures the objective reasonableness of an officer's action, it must stand in his shoes and judge the reasonableness of his actions based upon the information he possessed and the judgment he exercised in responding to that situation.”) (emphasis in original).

         Here, the question of force concerns the use of the Taser: Defendant Vidljinovic used his Taser on Plaintiff once. [177] (noting the parties' stipulation that “Officer Vidljinovic tasered Jose Lopez”). The first phase of trial will determine, inter alia, whether that decision was objectively reasonable. Consequently, the general risks presented by Tasers remain relevant to the question of whether it was objectively reasonable for Defendant Vidljinovic to utilize his Taser in this instance. Similarly, the fact that Plaintiff actually did fall to the ground and hit a hard surface remains relevant to the question of whether Defendants' behavior was objectively reasonable.

         In this case, however, the extent of Plaintiff's injuries, and his long-term suffering resulting from his fall, are not part of the reasonably foreseeable analysis; and thus Plaintiff must reserve such evidence for the damages phase of trial. See Mineo v. City of N.Y., No. 09-cv-2261, 2013 WL 1334322, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2013) (The “evidence relevant to the damages issue could have a prejudicial impact upon the jury's liability determination . . . [h]eaping on additional evidence related to damages will only heighten the prejudice to defendant . . . and may result in a jury verdict that is based on considerations wholly separate and apart from issues of liability.”). Given the facts at issue here, the extent of Plaintiff's physical injuries are simply not probative to the reasonableness of the force employed, because the Plaintiff's degree of force allegations concern the type of force, rather than the amount of force. Plaintiff does not claim that the “amount” of force used here was excessive (i.e., there is no allegation any Defendant hit Plaintiff on the head with an object or otherwise threw him to the ground). Instead, Plaintiff's alleged theory of damages flows from the “type” of force, that is, the purportedly unreasonable decision to use the Taser, which caused him to “crash to the ground, striking his head violently on the sidewalk, and to cry out with horrible sounds and groans of pain.” Fourth Amended Complaint, ¶¶ 44, 50 [56].[1] (“Defendant STEVAN VIDLJINOVIC tasered JOSE LOPEZ causing him to fall face first and his head to strike with such violent force that he sustained a skull fracture.”).

         Moreover, to the degree that any evidence remains relevant to both damages and liability, Plaintiff may explore such evidence during the liability phase upon obtaining leave of Court at sidebar. As the Court previously explained:

There is no “time frame” or other temporal limitation on evidence and argument available to the parties during either phase. Instead, the governing delineation is between evidence or argument which goes to liability, and evidence or argument which goes to Plaintiff's damages. To the extent either party intends to raise an argument or introduce evidence which is potentially relevant to both inquiries, that party must first raise the issue with the Court at sidebar.

[177] at 13. In light of the above, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion to ...


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