Mario Gonzalez Wrongful Death Case Against Alameda Officers Settles for $11 Million

OAKLAND, Calif., Dec. 15, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Civil rights law firm Haddad & Sherwin LLP announced today that it has won an $11 million settlement for their client, the now seven-year-old son of Mario Gonzalez, against the City of Alameda and three police officers involved in Mario Gonzalez’s restraint-asphyxia death on April 19, 2021. The involved officers are Eric McKinley, James Fisher, and Cameron Leahy. The Alameda County Sheriff-Coroner determined that Mr. Gonzalez’s death was a homicide. That homicide is still under review by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. The federal court lawsuit brought by Mr. Gonzalez’s son alleged violation of Mr. Gonzalez’s constitutional right to be free from unlawful arrest and excessive force by police officers.

On September 22, 2023, United States Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu largely denied the city’s motions for summary judgment, paving the way for trial of this case which was set to begin in November 2023. On the eve of trial, the City and its officers filed an appeal of the court’s denial of qualified immunity, which would have postponed the trial for over a year. The parties then negotiated this settlement, which was approved by the Alameda City Council and its insurers last night, December 14.

On April 19, 2021 – the day before the jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder for the restraint-asphyxia death of George Floyd – Alameda Police Officer Eric McKinley encountered Mario Gonzalez in a small pocket-park in Alameda, California. Two neighbors had called police to investigate a Hispanic man talking to himself and not making any sense, standing near one caller’s front yard fence. A caller stated that the man was not doing anything wrong, but that the man’s presence in the public park was scaring the caller’s wife. Officer McKinley asked Mario Gonzalez how he was doing, and Mr. Gonzalez responded that he was fine, although he appeared confused and disoriented. After attempting to engage Mr. Gonzalez in conversation for several minutes, and after having another officer confirm with a nearby drugstore that Mr. Gonzalez had not stolen bottles of liquor seen on the ground nearby, it was evident that Mr. Gonzalez was not violating any law. At that point, Officer McKinley should have thanked Mr. Gonzalez for his time and left.

Instead, Officer McKinley called for back-up, and when Officer Fisher arrived, together they grabbed Mr. Gonzalez to place him in handcuffs. Officers’ body-camera video shows officers placing Mr. Gonzalez in multiple pain compliance holds before they forced him face-down on the ground. Officers forced Mr. Gonzalez into a prone position, and Officers McKinley and Fisher held him down with their force and body weight. The officers were soon joined by Officer Leahy, who added his weight as well. Mario Gonzalez struggled to breathe over the next five minutes while these officers restrained him in a prone position with their force and body weight, including for 3 minutes and 45 seconds after he was handcuffed.

Mario Gonzalez never attacked or threatened any officer, and never actively resisted any officer. He did move around in attempts to breathe under Defendants’ illegal and asphyxiating restraint. In the course of the officers’ illegal restraint and seizure of Mario Gonzalez after he was handcuffed, Officer Fisher said, “He’s lifting my whole body weight up.” After the officers had pinned Mr. Gonzalez prone and handcuffed for minutes, Officer Fisher said, “Think we can roll him on his side?” to which Officer Leahy answered, “I don’t want to lose what I got, man.” Eventually when officers rolled Mr. Gonzalez over, he was limp and unresponsive.   He died as a result of the officers’ tactics and force.

In addition to finding Mario Gonzalez’s death was a homicide, the Alameda County Sheriff-Coroner found that “the officers were applying pressure to [Mario Gonzalez’s] torso and legs with at least some of the weight of their bodies” and the “stress of the altercation and restraint” contributed to his death, along with his obesity, alcoholism, and recent use of methamphetamine. The amount of methamphetamine found in Mr. Gonzalez’s blood was relatively low, well within what the United States government has determined to be a “normal recreational level.”   The risk of death from methamphetamine is just 1 in 353,000.   A second, independent autopsy, performed by noted forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, confirmed that Mr. Gonzalez died from restraint asphyxia. Dr. Omalu found acute, severe swelling and congestion in Mr. Gonzalez’s lungs, deep bruising from blunt force trauma on his back, and global swelling of his brain from the lack of oxygen and asphyxiation that caused his death.

Andrea Cortez, the mother of Mario Gonzalez’s seven-year-old son, says: “Mario was a peaceful, calm person. He was a very mellow guy. He adored our son and was a good father. The police should have known to use better tactics with Mario. He wasn’t hurting anyone and he was clearly confused. If they had rolled him on his side when the first officer said to, my son’s father might still be here.”

Michael Haddad, one of Mario’s son’s attorneys, says: “This settlement sends a message to law enforcement around the country to avoid unnecessary tactics known to cause asphyxia. Any kindergartener knows that people can’t breathe if you kneel on their back. There are consequences when police officers engage in such gross misconduct contrary even to their own training.”

Julia Sherwin, another family attorney, says, “This settlement confirms what we have said all along. Meth didn’t kill Mario, the officers did. I hope when little Mario grows up, he is proud of himself for holding the officers accountable for his father’s death.”

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