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Fresno will pay for citizen's death by police officer

Thursday, December 22, 2011

There will be some cold hard calculations involved in figuring how much the City of Fresno will have to pay for the death of Steven Vargas. The calculations will include how long the 32 year old father of five was likely to have lived and how much money he could have earned in his lifetime.

After a two week trial, and two days of deliberations in Federal Court an eight person jury unanimously decided the city of Fresno was liable for Vargas' death. He was shot to death two years ago by Fresno Police Sgt. Mike Palomino, ruling he used excessive force. But the attorney for the Vargas family, Arturo Gonzalez told reporters outside the courthouse on Tuesday the jury's work may not be done.

"The jury has to decide a very significant issue," said Gonzalez. What is the value of Steven Vargas life."

But Gonzalez is hoping the jury will not have to come back. He wants the city to accept a financial settlement. He's put a seven figure offer on the table, meaning he's expecting a million dollars or more. But Fresno attorney Tony Capozzi, ABC30's legal analyst doesn't believe any settlement will be that big.

"If there's going to be a settlement I don't see it as being in the million dollar areas. I see it at being much less," said Capozzi. "Even if it went to trial on damages I still don't see the million dollars verdict coming back in terms of damages."

Gonzalez has a track record of winning big cases against police departments in the Central Valley. In 1997 he won $12.5 million against the city of Dinuba for the police shooting of Ramon Gallardo. The award was subsequently reduced to $6 million. In 2002 he won $3 million against the city of Modesto for the police shooting of Alberto Sepulveda, an 11 year old boy.

But the Vargas case is different because the jury did not award punitive damages or punishment costs against the city of Fresno. That means the settlement will be solely based on Vargas life expectancy and earnings potential. Vargas was a man of modest means. He'd been fired from his job just hours before he was shot. The attorney representing the city of Fresno is also prepared to claim Vargas had a prison record and was a gang member.

But the city also has to factor in legal fees, which are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in a complex case like this. Capozzi said it's possible those fees could exceed the amount the Vargas family receives.

On Tuesday Gonzalez told reporters: "I know what the value of these cases are. We are entitled to recover legal fees, if this case were to continue, but I don't' want to get into a big dispute with city about legal fees or anything else. I'd like at this point after our trial to make an effort to settle it, if not I'll see you all again on the 17th."

The jury is scheduled to return on January 17th unless a settlement is reached.

The city attorney's office told Action News Fresno has an insurance pool of more than three million dollars to settle legal claims. But the money comes from each department and in this case, the police department will have to replace whatever is paid out from it's regular budget. If the settlement exceeds the city's funds, outside insurance will cover the rest of the loss.

(Copyright ©2014 KFSN-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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Tags:
fresno county, officer involved shooting, fresno, fresno police department, jerry dyer, court, lawsuit, local, gene haagenson
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