Federal jury awards $4 million to family of man in Rohnert Park suffocation death

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A federal jury Thursday awarded $4 million to the family of a Forestville man who died while being held facedown on the floor of a motel room two years ago by Rohnert Park public safety officers, marking the largest award in a civil rights case against Sonoma County law enforcement in at least a quarter century.

Branch Wroth’s parents, Christopher and Marni Wroth of Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, sued the city and the officers in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging Rohnert Park failed to train its officers to avoid suffocating people when restraining them and was deliberately indifferent to the physical risks posed to civilians.

Wroth, 41, died May 12, 2017, while being held on the ground by the officers, who were called to the Rohnert Park Budget Inn by staff that day to check on his welfare.

During the trial, the six-woman, four-man jury watched body camera video from officers at the motel, including footage showing officers holding Wroth on the ground, pulling his legs and arms behind him. Shortly before he went limp, Wroth could be heard through muffled sobs saying, “I can’t breathe.”

The jury deliberated over four days after the eight-day trial, reaching a unanimous verdict that Rohnert Park’s training problems were a “moving force” behind Wroth’s death. The jury found the individual officers acted with deliberate indifference in Wroth’s death, but that their indifference didn’t cause his death. It was the city’s fault, they found.

“You’re not going to fix the injury to that family with money, but there is a chance, however remote, that if Rohnert Park is paying attention to this verdict, it will stop someone else’s son from dying in the future,” said the family’s attorney, Izaak Schwaiger.

Marni Wroth said she was “overwhelmed and humbled” by the trial. In an email, she said she believed strongly that her son was the recipient “of poor policing from a department whose job it is to protect and serve us.”

Rohnert Park officials said the city is challenging the jury’s findings.

The city has filed a motion to ask the judge to overturn the verdict, contending the Wroths’ claims about inadequate training were invalid, Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said.

“The case is not over,” Schwartz wrote in a prepared statement.

He noted that Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s review of Wroth’s death, which cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, found the officer who first responded used “the least amount of force possible at each stage,” and “delayed physical contact until it was absolutely necessary.”

Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Tim Mattos, who took the helm of the department in December, also declined to comment, saying he’s been asked by the city to refer all questions about the case to the city manager’s office. Both Mattos and former Director Brian Masterson testified during the trial.

The verdict is the latest legal blow to the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department amid a string of high-profile lawsuits alleging civil rights violations and other misconduct by its officers.

In December, a federal jury determined Rohnert Park officers violated the rights of a local family when they searched their home in 2014 while looking for their son, who was on probation. One officer slipped through a back door of the house with his gun drawn, then holstered the weapon before taking the family by surprise. The jury awarded the family $145,000.

The federal judge in that case ordered the city to overhaul its training to ensure its police officers follow the law during warrantless searches, noting in her opinion that there “are systemic problems in the way that the City of Rohnert Park fails to train its police officers.”

In the Wroth case, the city argued that Wroth died as a result of a combination of health issues and methamphetamine intoxication. The Sonoma County coroner classified his death as a homicide, a finding that doesn’t imply criminal liability but meant Wroth died at the hands of another.

Ravitch in May 2018 cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in a report that said Wroth’s death was likely caused by his drug intoxication combined with physical exertion while resisting police.

The encounter began when staff from the motel on Redwood Drive called police reporting that a “very disoriented person” hadn’t left his room by checkout time, according to official reports.

Officers encountered Wroth in the room. He was high on methamphetamine and mostly naked, reluctant to put clothes on because he feared the clothing was poisoning him, the court filings and body camera video showed.

Wroth resisted being arrested by the officers who came to the room. The officers eventually got Wroth onto the ground, shocked him with a stun gun, hit him with a flashlight and restrained his arms and legs, according to the records.

Through sobs, Wroth complained he couldn’t breathe and about 50 seconds later his hands went limp, the recording showed.

One of the officers noticed the back of Wroth’s neck was purple and asked the officers to check his face, according to Ravitch’s report. The officers rolled Wroth over and tried to revive him, calling for someone to get a defibrillator.

He was pronounced dead in the motel room, about 50 minutes after motel staff called police.

Wroth’s parents sued the officers and city under a statute that applies when a government entity or its officer causes death, depriving them of the right to be with their son and receive the comfort and support of a family member.

They argued the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department failed to adequately train its officers about the risks of positional asphyxiation — suffocating people while restraining them in a certain position, according to the lawsuit.

Claims against the involved officers were dismissed in May when U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that while the Wroths had provided enough evidence about the department’s training failures for a jury to rule in their favor, they couldn’t sue the individual officers.

The judge agreed with the city’s arguments that the officers were immune from civil liability because there is no clearly established law or court finding that would inform them about how long restraining a person in the manner they did might cause someone to suffocate.

Schwaiger said that he did not ask the jury considering the Branch Wroth case to consider any specific amount of money.

The jury chose to award $2 million each to Wroth’s parents totaling $4 million. That sum does not include attorney’s fees to be paid by Rohnert Park, which will be decided at a later date by the judge.

Thursday’s settlement is the second for a member of the Wroth family stemming from problems with local law enforcement. In 2016, Sonoma County agreed to pay $1.25 million to end an excessive force lawsuit filed by Wroth’s brother, Esa Wroth, who was shocked 23 times with a stun gun while being booked into the jail on drunken- driving charges.

The award in Branch Wroth’s case is the largest sum given by a jury for a death involving Sonoma County law enforcement in at least 25 years. Most civil lawsuits filed by family members of people killed or injured during law enforcement encounters result in settlements.

Sonoma County agreed to pay million-dollar settlements in three separate cases last year:

$3 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013.

A $1.7 million payment to six former Sonoma County Jail inmates who filed a civil rights case saying they endured physical assaults and verbal abuse by correctional deputies. The case led the Sheriff’s Office to retrain its jail staff on use-of-force procedures and purchase body-worn cameras.

$1.9 million to the family of Santa Rosa resident Glenn Swindell, who killed himself in 2014 after sheriff’s deputies pumped tear gas into the attic where he was hiding during an all-night standoff.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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