DELHI -- A federal jury in Fresno awarded $900,000 to the parents of a 32-year-old Delhi man who died after being subdued by three Merced County sheriff's deputies.
The jury reached its decision Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by James Wathan Sr. and Helen Wathan against the Sheriff's Department and deputies Jon McKnight, Doug Hays and Russ Sharrock.
The lawsuit claimed the deputies were negligent and used excessive force when they subdued James Wathan Jr. on April 3, 2005, after a struggle at a residence in the 7000 block of Karen Street in Delhi.
The officers used batons and pepper spray to subdue Wathan Jr. A Livingston police officer used a Taser on him. After the struggle, Wathan Jr. fell unconscious and died.
The plaintiffs believe he suffocated to death after the deputies pinned him facedown into a sofa, said James Hoey, the Wathans' attorney.
The defense said Wathan Jr. was high on methamphetamine and resisted arrested, causing his heart to fail.
The initial jury verdict was $1.2 million, but jurors determined Wathan Jr. was partially at fault because he resisted arrest. As a result, the jury's award was decreased by 25 percent, according to court documents.
Hoey said his clients' feel as if a "large weight" has been lifted with the jury's verdict.
"This was a tragic and devastating example of what can happen when peace officers overstep their bounds," Hoey said.
After Wathan Jr.'s death, the Sheriff's Department conducted an internal review that determined the officers acted appropriately. Deputy Tom MacKenzie, the Sheriff's Department spokesman, said his department stands by that review.
"We don't believe they did anything wrong," he said.
James Arendt, the attorney who represented the Sheriff's Department, said the county is deciding whether to appeal the verdict. He said the deputies acted professionally under extremely difficult conditions, noting they tried to save Wathan Jr. with CPR.
"They were put into a difficult situation and the decisions they made were reasonable based on the circumstances they faced," Arendt said.
The Livingston police officer who used a Taser on Wathan Jr. was not named in the lawsuit because the plaintiffs' medical experts believe Wathan Jr. was unconscious, if not dead, by the time the Taser was used.
The day of the confrontation, James Wathan Sr. had called 911, asking to have his son removed from the house. The county coroner's report determined Wathan Jr.'s cause of death was cardiac dysrhythmia because of physiologic stress during restraint and attempted arrest, mild myocardial hypertrophy and acute methamphetamine intoxication.
Arendt said a forensic pathologist testified that Wathan Jr. was high on methamphetamine and struggled with the deputies, which likely led to "excited delirium syndrome," in which someone, often fueled by methamphetamine or other stimulants, gets so overexcited that his heart gives out.
Hoey dismissed the argument, saying excited delirium isn't accepted by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization or the American Psychiatric Association.
Of the three deputies, only McKnight, now a sergeant, remains with the Sheriff's Department.