A federal judge ruled today that BART, as an organization, cannot be held legally responsible for the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant III at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. However, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel, in a 56-page decision, said most of the issues in a $50 million federal lawsuit on behalf of Grant’s family against current and former BART police officers should be decided at a jury trial that could be held later this year. Seven men who were with Grant when he was killed are also plaintiffs in the suit. Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward man who was unarmed, was shot and killed by former BART Officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day in 2009 after Mehserle and other officers responded to reports that there was a fight on a BART train. Mehserle, who resigned a week after the incident, was charged with murder.
Last July, jurors convicted him of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. It is expected that he will be released from prison sometime in the next few months. Mehserle admitted during his trial that he fatally shot Grant but said he had meant to fire his Taser and fired his gun by mistake. Dale Allen, an attorney hired by BART, said Patel found that there was no evidence that BART failed to investigate complaints that its officers were overly aggressive in using force. Allen said Patel also found that there was insufficient evidence to show that Mehserle and fellow officer Tony Pirone had engaged in a pattern and practice of improperly using force in incidents prior to Grant’s death.
Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said that although BART cannot be found liable as an organization, “the case fundamentally is the same” because the primary targets of the lawsuit are Mehserle and Pirone. Burris said he thinks Pirone sparked the fatal shooting of Grant by acting aggressively when he confronted Grant. Of Patel’s ruling, Burris said, “We’re not surprised or disappointed.””BART is still on the hook for damages,” he said, if a jury finds that officers acted improperly.
In addition to Meshserle and Pirone, the suit names former BART Police Chief Gary Gee and officers Marysol Domenici, Jon Woffinden and Emery Knudtson. In January 2010, BART reached a settlement with the mother of Grant’s daughter, Tatiana Grant, who is now 6 years old. Allen said BART continues to try to resolve the case before it goes to trial if Grant’s family and the other plaintiffs in the case make “a reasonable settlement demand.” He said if a settlement is not reached, the case probably would not go to trial until this fall or next winter because Patel is retiring and a new judge would be assigned to the case. Burris said he hopes the case would go to trial in the fall.
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