COBIGE v. CITY OF CHICAGO (July 12, 2011)

In the summer of 2006, the Chicago Police arrested Patricia Cobige on a drug charge. It was not the first time she was arrested. She was sentenced to four years in prison in 1998 on drug charges and, again, sentenced to three years in prison in 2001. Unfortunately, after her 2006 arrest, she suffered a heart arrhythmia and died while in police custody. Her son brought suit against several police officers and the City under both state and federal law. A jury awarded $5 million in compensatory damages and $4,000 in punitive damages. The defendants appeal.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Bauer and Williams affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. The Court examined the trial evidence. It concluded that a jury could have found that Cobige had uterine tumors, that she experienced severe abdominal pain as a result, that the pain led her to produce more adrenaline, that the adrenaline in combination with a pre-existing heart condition caused her death, that routine examinations and care would have prevented her death, and that four police officers ignored her complaints of pain. The City's principal argument is that the plaintiff's expert testified that death can occur only a short period after each spike in adrenaline and that there was testimony that Cobige died in a peaceful sleep. The Court conceded the point but countered that the jury was not required to believe the testimony that she died in her sleep. They could have reasonably believed that she continued to experience the pain throughout the night until her death -- or even that she had been dead for hours. The City also complained that plaintiff's expert was not an expert in police procedures. Again, the Court conceded the point but countered that his testimony only went to Cobige's need for treatment. The City could have presented evidence that she was not treated because of other extenuating circumstances. But it did not. The Court did take issue with the district court's exclusion of much evidence concerning Cobige's drug problem and history of arrests. The district court allowed her son to testify that she was a friend, a supporter, and a role model and that she provided wise advice. The court then admitted evidence only of Cobige 's latest drug conviction. The court relied on evidence Rules 404(b) and 609. Rule 609 is irrelevant in that it deals with attacks on the witness’ character for truthfulness and Cobige obviously never testified. Rule 404(b) also deals with evidence of character and prohibits such evidence when it is offered to show "action in conformity therewith." That is not why the City offered the evidence. It offered the evidence on the question of damages. The exclusion of that evidence requires a new trial, which should be limited to the subject of damages.