Fullerton Settles Kelly Thomas Wrongful Death Suit for $4.9 Million

The Fullerton City Council Monday agreed to a $4.9 million settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the father of mentally-ill transient Kelly Thomas, who died in July 2011 after after being beaten by six Fullerton police officers.

The Council approved the settlement after an hourlong closed-session meeting, but city officials had little to say about it terms. The amount was confirmed by the courts’ spokeswoman, Gwen Vieau.

“It’s still a pending situation,” said City Attorney Richard Jones of the settlement amount. However, he said if the unnamed insurers agree to the settlement, it means “no city funds” will be spent.

The settlement came just as lawyers were  to begin the civil trial in the lawsuit Ron Thomas filed against the city, two former police chiefs and five officers who were involved in the July 5, 2011 beating of Kelly Thomas in the Fullerton bus station parking lot. The 37-year-old schizophrenic never regained consciousness and died five days later.

Ron Thomas said in a telephone interview the $4.9 million is high enough to meet his goal of “making a statement” that Fullerton, which he said initiated the agreement, symbolically “acknowledges wrongdoing.” He said the actual written settlement includes a sentence which says the city is paying the money but not admitting anyone did anything wrong.

The $4.9million will cover all of his legal bills, Ron Thomas said, but he declined to specify how much he would receive after that.

He said he wasn’t surprised by the settlement offer because his lawyers had advised him such things typically occur just before a civil trial is to begin.

As part of the civil trial, both sides planned to use a video compiled by the District Attorney’s office after the beating that showed officers hitting Kelly Thomas, using a taser on him, and sitting on his chest. The video helped turn the death into international news that ultimately cost Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers his job, as well as three city council members.

Click here to view the video.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; and officers Jay Cicinelli and Joseph Wolfe involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. However, a jury acquitted Ramos and Cicinelli of all charges in January, 2014, and the charges against Wolfe were subsequently dropped.

Still unclear is what information will be publicly available if the settlement goes through, particularly any evidence developed that sheds light on what the officers said and did as they filled out their reports on the night of the beating.

Typically, government agencies settle controversial cases to keep such information from becoming public.

“We (the public) have no answers,” Jane Rands told the city council during a brief public comment period before they went behind closed doors.

“In this process, there is no transparency,” added another speaker, Laurel Laughlin.

Voice of OC reported one document that sheds light on the officers’ actions determined three of the four Fullerton police officers primarily involved in Kelly Thomas’ death violated a series of department policies, including use of force.

In a news release issued after the city settlement announcement, Ron Thomas’ lawyer, Garo Mardirossian said the settlement came as Ramos was scheduled to testify about his actions captured on the 33-minute video. Ramos no longer is with the department.

Ron Thomas said he has two goals for the future: working to get severely mentally ill adults off the streets and changing California’s 37-year-old Peace Officer Bill of Rights so that the public can learn when officers are fired and disciplined. The 1978 law restricts public access to law enforcement disciplinary records and civilian complaints.

With the resolution of the Ron Thomas civil case, the only outstanding action is a still-pending federal civil rights investigation. Typically, federal officials don’t comment on the status of such cases.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.