The City of Chicago is Liable to the Estate of a Domestic Violence Victim

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Our Chicago personal injury lawyers report that the City of Chicago is liable for the wrongful death of a victim of domestic violence for failure to arrest the assailant despite several 911 calls, the Illinois Appellate Court decided on January 17, 2013.

Henry Fenton was murdered by his girlfriend’s son, Rovale Brim, following a violent argument between Fenton, his girlfriend, and her son. The facts recited by the appellate court reveal that on March 4, 2002, Fenton called 911 at 1:37 am, alerting the emergency operator that his girlfriend’s son was arguing in loud and boisterous fashion and was violent. The operator dispatched police officers who were confronted with an “angry, drunken, and boisterous Rovale” who was yelling at his mother, and was making violent movements with a bottle in his hands. The officers separated the individuals, and escorted Rovale to his basement bedroom where he lived. They did not arrest Rovale at this time.

Fenton dialed the emergency 911 line for a second time at 2:30 am, and when the officers arrived at the home, they saw a similar situation as was developing earlier. At that time Rovale’s mother asked that he be removed from the residence. The officers allowed drunken Rovale to leave the residence, and wait outside in a zero degree temperature, for a girlfriend to pick him up. The officers left, while Rovale was waiting outside about a block from the home of his mother and Fenton.

Six minutes after the policemen left, Fenton called for a third time, telling the 911 operator that Rovale was trying to break into the house. When the officers arrived for a third time that night, they found Fenton dead. He was stabbed, beaten and suffered a head trauma.

The Estate of Henry Fenton filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago, based on the Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986, maintaining that Henry Fenton was an “abused person” under the act and that the police officers, summoned to the residence twice before Fenton’s death, acted in willful and wanton manner when they failed to arrest Rovale Brim. A Cook County Jury awarded $2 million to the estate ,finding that the police officers acted in willful and wanton manner.

The City of Chicago appealed, arguing that Fenton was not an “abused person” as defined in the Act because Rovale had been arguing mainly with his mother, and not with Fenton. If Fenton was not an “abused person,” the City argued, the officers were completely immune from liability for their actions or inactions. The City also claimed that because Fenton died as a result of an intentional criminal act, even if he was considered an “abused person,” the officers’ actions or inactions were not the proximate cause of Fenton’s death and the City should not be held liable.

The Appellate Court found the City of Chicago’s arguments without merit and affirmed the verdict of the jury. The Court noted that the Illinois Domestic Violence Act was passed by the legislators in response to a societally significant increase in injuries and deaths that stemmed from domestic disputes. 750 ILCS 60/102 (West 2002). Section 304(a) of the Act states, in pertinent part, that “Whenever a law enforcement officer has reason to believe that a person has been abused, neglected, or exploited by a family or household member, the officer shall immediately use all reasonable means to prevent further abuse, neglect, or exploitation, including: 1) Arresting the abusing, neglecting and exploiting party, where appropriate[.]” 750 ILCS 60/304(a) (West 2002).

The Act defines abuse as “physical abuse, harassment, intimidation of a dependent, interference with personal liberty or willful deprivation but does not include reasonable direction of a minor child by a parent or person in loco parentis.” 750 ILCS 60/103(1) (West 2002).

The Appellate Court recited the facts surrounding Fenton’s death, and determined that the City’s arguments are baseless. The Court observed that Fenton himself called 911 on three occasions and that the facts sufficiently showed that Rovale was violent towards both, his mother, and Fenton, and that Fenton was an “abuse victim”. Further, the Court noted that the officers were advised of domestic disturbance, and this “combined with Rovale’s use of alcohol and his violent, jerky movements, should have alerted the officers that the situation had surpassed mere argument”

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The Court also disagreed with the City’s alternative argument that even if Fenton was an “abuse victim,” the conduct of the officers did not legally rose to the level of wilful and wanton misconduct, which is the legal threshold for actions against government actors even if there was a duty to act. The Court observed that “the most volatile player in this domestic drama was seen to exhibit the very same behavior after the police intervened the first time. This conduct was exacerbated by the decision to leave Rovale on the sidewalk where he supposedly would wait patiently in the freezing weather for an hour. The officers essentially hoped that Rovale would not turn around and finish what he had started.”

The Court also criticized the city for failure to conduct a detailed interview with Fenton even though it was Fenton who called 911 each time. The Court found that the City’s argument is “quite cynical when one considers the fact that it conveniently ignores that these police officers did precious little to protect Valerie, the woman that they suggest was the only one who was being harassed by the assailant. Trying to predict what an irascible, violent and drunken man will do in a domestic dispute with his mother and her boyfriend could be an uncertain enterprise, but the potential for catastrophe is greater if one does not get everyone’s version of what is going on within the household.”

Further, the Court noted that even if Rovale’s mother had been the murder victim, the City’s argument would be equally without merit. “Considering the fact that there were only two potential victims in the home that evening, and one of them was killed, the City leans on a rather slender reed when it tries, in a not-so-subtle fashion, to argue that the only predictable victim was Valerie, not Fenton.”

The Court concluded that “the public policy behind this Act would not be furthered if law enforcement could escape liability by merely claiming that the assailant was acting more malevolently toward someone other than the ultimate victim.”

We applaud the thoughtful decision by the Illinois Appellate Court in recognizing the rights of victims of domestic violence and the special status with those who are summoned to protect them.

Our law office has several cases a year against government entities. We currently have a case against the City of Chicago for the willful and wanton failure to provide timely emergency medical assistance causing the death of a fellow Chicagoan.