The parents of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the city Tuesday, closing the civil case over a killing that stoked nationwide debate about African American deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
The settlement amount was not disclosed, but U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber of the Eastern District of Missouri said he was satisfied that the agreement was fair to the parties and compliant with the law.
“The gross settlement amount is fair and reasonable compensation for this wrongful death claim and is in the best interest of each Plaintiff,” Webber wrote. He added that it provided a reasonable amount for attorney fees and expenses, and said the split between Brown’s parents was proper.
The judge ordered the agreement sealed under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, saying Brown’s parents could be harmed if it were revealed to the public.
“Disclosure of the terms of the settlement agreement could jeopardize the safety of individuals involved in this matter, whether as witnesses, parties, or investigators,” he wrote.
An attorney for the parents declined to discuss the agreement Tuesday. Attorneys for the defendants did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, during a physical altercation on a residential street in the St. Louis suburb in August 2014. His death set off a wave of outrage over the way black people are treated by U.S. law enforcement, sparking unrest in the city and nationwide protests that continued for months. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson in connection with Brown’s death and the Department of Justice cleared him of civil rights violations.
Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, sued the city of Ferguson, Wilson and former Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson in May 2015. Their lawsuit alleged the officer was unreasonably aggressive when he stopped Brown and used excessive force when he fired on him, all in violation of his civil rights.
It also claimed the city’s law enforcement practices “contributed to police officers’ devaluation of African American life in the city of Ferguson” and said the police department had a “historical racial bias and hostility” to black citizens. Police in Ferguson routinely stopped or detained African Americans without valid reasons, spoke to them in disparaging language and used excessive force in their encounters, in a pattern of misconduct that led to Brown’s death, the parents alleged.
The lawsuit extensively cited a scathing Department of Justice report from 2015 that found pervasive racial bias in Ferguson’s 72-member police department and detailed what then-Attorney General Eric Holder called “routine” constitutional violations by law enforcement.
The defendants denied the allegations and sought to have the lawsuit thrown out.
Until recently, the case appeared headed to trial. The parties disclosed their expert witnesses to the court last month and were scheduled to turn over their depositions and other evidence this summer. A jury trial was set for February 2018.
But the judge referred the parties to alternative dispute resolution in April, according to court records. Two sealed documents were filed with the court this month, and attorneys for the family and the city held a 14-minute confidential telephone conference with the judge on Monday, the records show.
Police officers are rarely prosecuted in fatal shootings, but wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits by family members are common. In those cases, the amount in damages that plaintiffs can recover is often limited by local governments’ liability caps — typically several hundred thousand dollars — and usually hinges on whether plaintiffs can prove civil rights violations.
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