A federal jury awarded $17 million in damages on Wednesday to the family of a mentally disabled man who was fatally shot by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer inside a Costco in Corona.
The jury's verdict came a day after U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal found that Officer Salvador Sanchez used excessive and unreasonable force in June 2019 when he shot and killed 32-year-old Kenneth French. The shooting followed a brief confrontation between the two men in line to sample sausages.
Sanchez, who was fired last year, is awaiting trial on manslaughter and assault charges filed by the California attorney general’s office after a Riverside County grand jury declined to indict him a few months after the killing.
The L.A. Police Commission found that he violated department policy in the shooting of French and his parents, who were seriously wounded.
After four hours of deliberations Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Riverside, the jury of six women and two men found that Sanchez acted within the scope of his LAPD employment when he fired 10 shots at the French family. That finding effectively made the city of Los Angeles liable for damages.
The suit was filed against Sanchez and the city by Kenneth French's parents, Russell and Paola French. The damages award was unusually high for a police shooting case, said Dale K. Galipo, the couple's attorney, who often represents victims of police shootings and their families.
“They’re hoping that now that they’ve received some justice on behalf of Kenneth, they can start the healing and closure process,” he said.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said, "We will review all our options including appeal."
Sanchez was not in the courtroom Wednesday for closing statements or the verdict. His attorney, Andrew C. Hubert, declined to comment.
It would have been up to the jury to decide whether Sanchez used excessive and unreasonable force, but Bernal ruled Tuesday that the evidence was so clear that the jury did not need to consider the question.
But jurors were asked to determine whether Sanchez was serving in his capacity as an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department when he drew his gun and fired at the French family, and they found unanimously that he was.
“They hired him, they trained him, they gave him permission to have that gun,” Galipo told the jury in his closing statement.
“Make no mistake about it, if Officer Sanchez at the time had not had that weapon by virtue of his LAPD police officer status, this wouldn’t have happened.
“Sanchez should be held accountable,” he added, “but so should they. That’s really what this comes down to, is money. The city doesn’t want to pay these people a dime.”
Sanchez’s lawyer, seeking to limit the former officer's financial responsibility for the shooting, echoed the argument that the former officer used the gun as part of his job.
“Even if he’s off duty, he’s still in the course and scope of his employment,” Hubert told the jury.
The day of the shooting, Hubert said, Sanchez had worked a morning police shift in Los Angeles before driving home to Riverside and picking up his wife and baby son for a trip to Costco. He said Sanchez was “knocked to the floor” during his encounter with Kenneth French and “thought he’d been shot” when he decided to use his gun.
Sanchez’s lawyers have previously said the officer believed that French had a gun. French was unarmed. Police documents made public in 2019 showed that Sanchez was at least 20 feet from the French family when he opened fire. Police have also said that Sanchez started shooting less than four seconds after French struck him.
Cory Brente, a lawyer for the city of Los Angeles, sought to cast all the blame on Sanchez, saying he was acting as a private citizen, not a police officer.
“He did what he did on his own — wrongfully, as the court has found," Brente told the jury.
Damages awarded by the jury covered, among other things, wrongful death, pain, suffering, economic loss and severe emotional distress inflicted negligently on Russell and Paola French, who both suffered major internal injuries from their bullet wounds.
Russell French, who lost a kidney, his gallbladder and part of his intestines, was shot on his back right side, and his wife was shot in the lower back, Galipo said.
The couple's son was shot in the right lower back, the left lower back, the buttocks and the left arm, he said. The trajectory of all the bullets was back-to-front in all three bodies, he said, and four bullets did not hit anyone.
"It's difficult to imagine more severe damages than what occurred in this case," Galipo said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.