East Haven Police Blamed In $12 Million Verdict
Given the issues with the insurance and registration of the Trnka's truck, Stratton sued the town of East Haven under the ministerial exception to the public employee immunity doctrine. Stratton said fledgling officers are taught in the police academy that if they pull over a vehicle that has the wrong license plates on it, the vehicle should be towed and kept off of the streets until the situation is resolved. Failing to tow Trnka's truck violated that ministerial protocol, Stratton argued.
The attorney said one big challenge was to prove that the East Haven officers knew there was a problem with the license plates and chose not to do anything about it.
Stratton pointed to circumstantial evidence to prove police knew of the improper plates, including a notation on the police report that the truck involved in the incident was a Ford (the make of vehicle the plates were assigned to) instead of a Chevy, the actual vehicle involved.
Stratton also tried to impugn the officer's credibility by noting other errors in the report, including no mentions of the punched-out windshield, the 911 caller, and an incorrect name and address for Trnka's girlfriend.
The trial lasted 10 days, including jury selection, before New Haven Superior Court Judge Robin Wilson. Stratton, who had asked for $4 million during settlement talks, asked the jury during the trial for $12.3 million. They ultimately awarded $12.2 million.
Keefe made a motion for a directed verdict, which is still pending. Keefe also will file a motion to set aside the verdict.
"The plaintiff claimed the police should have towed the vehicle," said Keefe. "That would be a credible claim only if the police officers knew it was unregistered. They didn't know it was unregistered, uninsured."
Keefe said the verdict award of $12.2 million was brought by a "runaway jury."
He added, "I think they had a very sympathetic plaintiff who really did nothing wrong."
Stratton said the verdict "meant an awful lot" to him, given all the problems of the East Haven Police Department. A U.S. Justice Department investigation found that the department routinely targeted Hispanics. Two officers were found guilty in October of violating the civil rights of Hispanics and two others pleaded guilty earlier to reduced charges.