Portland, Ore. – A jury has awarded more than $40,000 to a woman who says she broke her arm after a Portland Police officer shoved her to the ground from behind during the 2020 racial justice protests. Erin Wenzel, a care coordinator at Oregon Health and Science University, sued the city of Portland in October 2020 for $500,000 for physical and emotional damages. She was serving as a medic during the protests, and identified herself by putting a red cross on her helmet. PPB was unable to identify the officer that injured her, so she opted to sue the city, requesting a jury trial. Which according to Lewis and Clark College legal expert, Tung Yin, the plaintiff likely did this because “there was a mismatch between their expectations, and thought they could do better than a settlement.” Plus, there’s a symbolic significance in going to court. “They maybe don’t care about the money as much as really wanting their day in court. They could really want the evidence presented in open court, and have a jury possibly say: yes the police acted unlawfully.”
Legal experts say this is a significant trial because it is the first from the racial justice protests to go in front of a jury. With a number of lawsuits against PPB for their alleged actions during the protests still yet to be settled, this case could serve as some sort of benchmark.
“It’s a data point. Now, the next protestor, potential plaintiff, who reads about this case and says hey the same thing happened to me, or my injuries were even worse; they now have a number they can look at and say I should expect to be able to get at least this much,” Yin said.
This is not a guarantee because every case, and every jury is different. Plus a lot is centered around building the credibility of the plaintiff. But nonetheless “it’s a data point. And the more of these cases there are, you will start to see, kind of coalescing around some rough average and that would give you a pretty good benchmark of what the average case like this would seem to be worth,” Yin said.
As of August there were at least 20 lawsuits against Portland police are still pending in state and federal court.
“It doesn’t set a precedent in the legal sense, meaning that the next case would be obligated to follow the next one. Just because the jury found this protestor was abused by the police, doesn’t mean the next protestor either was abused, or can prove they were abused to the satisfaction of a jury,” Yin said.
One interesting aspect that could also play a role in future jury decisions and settlements, is that in Wenzel’s case, there were no witnesses and no videos. Yet she was still able to win over the jury. Taking us back to a time before there were smartphones watching our every move.
“I think this comes down to the credibility determination. We have the plaintiffs saying, this is what happened to me, these are the injuries I suffered. Then we have the defense, the police saying no we didn’t shove the person, or what we did was the minimum force necessary to move them out of the way. The jury in this case happened to believe the plaintiff,” Yin said. “The video can cut both ways. Sometimes there might be video that disproves the plaintiffs side of the story, as much as there might be video that confirms it. The absence of video doesn’t necessarily help just one side.”
The jury has found PPB liable, not guilty, for battery and unreasonable force. It also chose not to find the bureau liable for assault, nor found that PPB is responsible for negligent training of its officers.