The District Court of Appeals has overturned a $349,000 wrongful death award to a widow who sued the D.C. police because her husband, apparently depressed over his paralysis from a police gunshot wound, committed suicide before his $40 million claim against the police went to trial.
The court, however, upheld a $51,000 award against the police for the use of excessive force in the shooting, and remanded the case to D.C. Superior Court for a new trial on damages to the widow.
According to court records, D.C. officer Norman Bell shot Raymond Peters in the back during a struggle on Christmas Eve 1981.
Peters, on holiday leave from the Army, reportedly had been smoking PCP during the day. When he returned to his Northeast home with his wife, who court papers said "noticed that he was acting strangely," Peters picked up a cane, stood in the middle of Jackson Street and began hitting passing cars with it.
Bell, a 10-year member of the force, was called to the scene after two men got out of their cars and began struggling with Peters. Bell ordered Peters to drop the cane, but Peters instead jabbed the cane into Bell's stomach.
As they struggled, Peters turned and raised his leg as if to deliver a karate-like kick, and Bell drew his gun and fired. Peters was wounded in the upper back and left paralyzed from the chest down.
Three months after the shooting, he and his wife filed a $40 million suit in D.C. Superior Court claiming Bell had used excessive force in the incident. But in 1983, a year before the case went to trial, Raymond Peters hanged himself from a stair railing in his home.
Robert Cadeaux, a lawyer for Deborah Y. Peters, the widow, said yesterday the remand order means the case must be retried to decide whether Raymond Peters' suicide was directly related to his paralysis.
However, Cadeaux said the court had sided with his client's claim that District police were not trained to deal with drunk, drug-abusing or mentally disturbed persons.
The appeals court ruling said the Peters case did not fall into the "limited category of cases in which damages can be awarded for wrongful death by suicide."