A federal jury in Riverside on Friday, April 7, awarded $7.5 million to the sister of a man who died while being held by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies in Temecula in 2019. But jurors also found that Kevin Robert Niedzialek , 34, a methamphetamine addict, was 80% guilty of his own death.
As a result, the sister, Tracey Alves, will receive $1.5 million in a decision that left her lawyers and Sheriff Chad Bianco debating what exactly the jury of five men and three women agreed upon.
Alves indicted after Niedzialek died after being incapacitated twice by a deputy’s stun gun and handcuffed on July 29, 2019. Court documents by Alves and county attorneys tell much of the same story about the confrontation, but Alves’ attorneys say Niedzialek stopped breathing after a deputy knelt on his back as he lay face down on the ground.
Niedzialek did not recover and was pronounced dead the next day.
The province’s lawyers wrote in a response to the lawsuit that the province was not responsible for Niedzialek’s death. A medical expert hired by the county wrote in a report that the coroner attributed the death to “acute methamphetamine toxicity with other important conditions for the use of restraint.”
The lawsuit, which began March 28 before U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, was filed in federal court because the lawsuit alleged violations of Niedzialek’s constitutional rights.
“Today, the jury determined that our Riverside County Sheriff’s Department deputies did not violate the constitutional rights of the late Kevin Niedzialek,” Bianco said in comments from the department’s Media Information Bureau. “They also found that our department’s training on prone positioning and positional asphyxia was lawful and had no role in this tragic death from methamphetamine. The jury also rejected all claims, including denying all punitive damages claims, against Sheriff Bianco himself.
“While… the jury found that two of our deputies were negligent to Mr. Niedzialek after he was handcuffed, the jury also found that Mr. Niedzialek was liable for 80% of the damages awarded by them. While our condolences go out to the family of the deceased for their loss, the Sheriff’s Department is pleased that the jury correctly understood that there was no excessive force or lack of training here,” Bianco said.
One of Alves’ attorneys, Dale K. Galipo, characterized the sheriff’s response as “deeply misleading.”
Galipo said jurors never decided whether the training was inadequate because those questions were not on the verdict form.
“Further… the jury correctly found, based on the evidence and the law, that the officers’ negligent conduct was a cause of death. That’s why the plaintiff won the lawsuit and that’s why the province is responsible for $1.5 million,” Galipo wrote in a text message. “Because the jury found no violation of the constitution, they never decided whether or not Bianco should be held personally responsible.”
The complaint filed by Alves said her brother struggled with substance abuse and although he tried to recover, had relapsed from taking methamphetamine days before his death.
On the day of the confrontation, Representatives Sonia Gomez and Brian Keeney responded to 911 calls about an unarmed man in an apartment complex on Moraga Road who had a bleeding head wound and sounded incoherent, according to court documents.
According to the lawsuit, Niedzialek charged toward Keeney but stopped, hands at his sides, yelled “Wait, wait, wait” and slowly walked over to Keeney. Gomez then fired her stun gun, hitting Niedzialek. When Niedzialek resisted being handcuffed, deputies retreated. Gomez fired her stun gun a second time as Niedzialek stood up. Niedzialek fell again.
The county’s response said a deputy sheriff alternated kneeling on Niedzialek’s shoulder blade or just above it, then later placing a hand on his back as he lay on his stomach. Niedzialek rocked and kicked while being held, the province said.
At some point, the deputies realized that Niedzialek was not breathing and had no pulse. Paramedics were able to resuscitate Niedzialek, but he was pronounced brain dead the next day after being without oxygen for too long, the lawsuit said. His heart and lungs were donated.
Theodore C. Chan, professor and chair of the department of emergency medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, was hired by the county to review the case.
“During his relatively brief struggle with officers and restraint in the prone position, he sometimes actively resisted, made noises and appeared to be breathing. Sometimes he moved in such a way that some parts of his body were not completely on the ground. Accordingly, it does not appear that Mr Niedzialek’s restraint caused any significant respiratory or breathing compromise that put him at risk of asphyxia,” Chan wrote.
Chan’s report was recorded in a story written by the New York Times titled, “How Paid Experts Exonerate Police After Deaths in Custody.”
The Times story also mentioned part of Bianco’s statement in the case.
Bianco cited studies to explain why his deputies held people face down after handcuffing them. He described the position as “the absolute safest place for any subject.”