New Orleans Jury Awards $650K in Katrina Jail Lawsuit

October 18, 2010

A federal jury has awarded more than $650,000 to two Ohio tourists who were arrested in New Orleans, La., on public drunkenness charges two days before Hurricane Katrina and jailed for more than a month in the storm’s chaotic aftermath.

The jury unanimously concluded that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman falsely imprisoned Robie Waganfeald and Paul Kunkel Jr., both of Toledo, Ohio, and awarded them a total of $459,300 for those claims.

The seven jurors also found that one of Gusman’s chief deputies, William Hunter, was “deliberately indifferent” to the men’s constitutional rights to call an attorney or relative after their arrest. For that violation, jurors awarded them $200,000.

The men had asked the jury to award them more than $1.3 million in damages, claiming they were held illegally in inhumane conditions after the jail flooded.

The two friends hugged each other after the verdict was read.

“There is a God,” Kunkel whispered after the jury left the courtroom.

Other inmates who rode out the hurricane in the city’s jail have filed similar lawsuits, but a lawyer for Kunkel and Waganfeald said he believed they were the first to win an award against Gusman’s office.

“We hope it gets his attention,” said the lawyer, John Murray.

Gusman, who testified during the trial but wasn’t in the courtroom for the vedict, said in a statement that his office will appeal the judgment.

Gusman said transferring more than 6,000 inmates out of the jail after Katrina was “an unprecedented movement that had never been attempted” in the city or state.

“All of those inmates arrived at their destinations without a single fatality or serious injury,” he said.

Freeman Matthews, a lawyer for Gusman, said during closing arguments that the sheriff’s office did an outstanding job of caring for and protecting inmates during the 2005 storm’s aftermath.

“Obviously, there was no intent to hurt anyone or violate anybody’s rights,” he said.

Matthews had called it “greed” for the two men to seek more than $1.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

“There’s no amount of money that can compensate us for what we went through,” Kunkel countered after the verdict. “I’ll never forget about what we went through. I think about it every day.”

“It’s a huge sigh of relief, to say the least,” Waganfeald said. “We have our civil rights, and they shouldn’t be violated.”

Waganfeald, 44, and Kunkel, 49, deny they were drunk when police arrested them on Bourbon Street around 5 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2005, a day after they stopped in New Orleans on their way home from a cross-country vacation.

The friends were held on $300 bond but said they couldn’t arrange for it to be paid because the jail’s phones weren’t working, a problem Gusman testified he didn’t know about.

The men’s lawyers said they were entitled by law to be released within 48 hours unless probable cause was found to keep them in custody.

“Had the sheriff followed the law, they would have been on their way, out of harm’s way,” Murray said.

The jury concluded Gusman was aware that the “48-hour rule” was violated and failed to exercise his authority to release them, showing “deliberate indifference” to their constitutional rights. However, jurors didn’t award any damages for that claim.

Murray said the sheriff also had the authority to release people charged with minor municipal offenses. Gusman testified that he has never exercised that power.

Matthews said the courts, not the sheriff, are in charge of ordering the release of inmates. And the sheriff wasn’t obligated to exercise his “parole” powers to release inmates on his own.

“It’s just a right that some elected officials have, and it’s not to be abused,” he added.

After the storm hit Aug. 29, Waganfeald and Kunkel were locked inside the jail without food, water or working toilets as their cells filled with more than two feet of flood water. Kunkel claims he went without water for three days before he resorted to drinking polluted flood water.

Once inmates were loaded onto buses on Sept. 1, Kunkel was taken to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he developed an eye infection. He was later transferred to the state prison at Angola before he was released Oct. 3. Waganfeald was taken to Catahoula Correctional Center in Harrisonburg and released Oct. 5.

Murray asked the jury to award Kunkel and Waganfeald a total of at least $500,000 in compensatory damages and $880,000 in punitive damages. The jury didn’t award any punitive damages.

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