City settles officer shooting lawsuit

Gurmit Singh

The City of Gilroy awarded more than $2 million in damages and fees in July to the family of a man who was shot and killed by a Gilroy Police officer nearly five years ago, conceding a drawn-out legal battle for the sake of time and resources, according to staff and Council members.

In April, the City hinted it would fight a jury’s decision to award the family of Gurmit Singh – the 33-year-old man that was shot 10 miles outside Gilroy by Police Cpl. Eustaquio “Paco” Rodriguez on his way back from issuing a subpoena in Gustine the evening of Feb. 8, 2009 – with $1.25 million  in damages.

Despite finding Singh 50 percent responsible for his own death, the jury had sympathy on Singh’s wife and two young children, agreeing that the City owed them a heap of money to help them survive on their own.

The City’s insurance pool, Association of Bay Area Governments, made the decision to settle in May and covered the $2.13 million expense, according to City Administrator Tom Haglund.

The City paid $50,000 of the expense as their insurance deductible, and Human Resource Director LeeAnn McPhillips said that the City has seen a $78,000 increase in annual ABAG insurance premiums for the current fiscal year, which is based on overall assets and liabilities for the City as well as the 29 other local governments that ABAG represents.

“Given the way that these sorts of trials play out, simply going to appeal it can be difficult as you can’t just appeal a decision because you don’t like it. You have to appeal it based on technical deficiencies in the trial itself,” Haglund said. “I think that although we completely disagree with the verdict of the jury, the terms of the settlement were agreeable.”

Councilman Bob Dillon said that ABAG shelling out the $2 million now was a better option than facing whatever unknown amount in the future had they kept fighting.

“How much more do you want to spend along the way, and what’s the chance on the outcome?” he said.

Councilman Peter Leroe-Munoz agreed.

“Ultimately we felt it was in the best interest in the City to not have a retrial,”  Leroe-Munoz said.

“There is the cost, the possibility of actually winning, and then there is the opportunity cost, would it be wise to use resources for a retrial when those resources could go toward something else?” he continued.

Attorneys representing the City met with the plaintiffs before a mediator on May 1 – one month after the three-week trial concluded – and decided to “amicably” resolve the matter, according to court files.

Court records indicate that the City agreed to pay $900,000 to Singh’s wife, Paramjit Kaur, “to raise her children and, hopefully, purchase a home,” and another $100,000 to be divided equally between his two children, ages 8 and 9.

The City also agreed to pay $1.13 million to cover the 2500 hours of legal fees the plaintiff’s accumulated at Casper, Meadows, Schwartz and Cook as well as the Law Offices of Karen Snell.

Despite settling, the City has not backed from their stance that Rodriguez behaved appropriately for the situation and acted only in self-defense, according to several Council members and Mayor Al Pinheiro.

Rodriguez was driving westbound on Highway 152 around 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 2008 in an unmarked Crown Victoria on an hour-long drive back to Gilroy from Gustine in Merced County, where he served a subpoena. He spotted Gurmit Singh lying in the roadway with his head over the white line, according to court documents. Singh’s family had picked him up in Fresno after he became ill, and was driving him to the Bay Area when they got into a violent dispute, according to court records. Singh began beating his brother-in-law, who was driving, and his father-in-law, who was seated next to Singh in the backseat. The driver pulled over and dropped Singh off on Highway 152 about one mile west of San Felipe Road, and pulled over to the nearest call box on Highway 152.

According to court records, Rodriguez guessed the incident was a domestic dispute after he observed Singh lying on the side of the road, as well as the vehicle parked ahead of him.

“It was pretty dark…I didn’t know what I was going into, so I immediately withdrew my weapon,” Rodriguez testified in court.

When Rodriguez, who was dressed in full department uniform, stopped to help the man, Singh began screaming at the “top of his lungs” and lunged toward Rodriguez in a “football tackle-like position,” according to court records.

“Get on the ground,” Rodriguez shouted twice at Singh.

When Singh didn’t stop charging, Rodriguez fired two shots in rapid succession at his assailant’s stomach.

“I was very scared and afraid that he was going to take my gun, I was going to get in a wrestling match with him and he was going to take my gun. He was a lot bigger than me,” Rodriguez told investigators back at the GPD station the night of the incident. “So I pulled the trigger figuring that he was going to kill me.”

Singh had several inches and about 40 pounds on the 5’ 5” and 155 pound Rodriguez, investigators approximated.

The GPD has since promoted Rodriguez from Officer to Corporal in February 2011. He remains on the force, but is currently out on an injury leave, according to Sgt. Pedro Espinoza. Espinoza would not reveal details of Rodriguez’ injury, but said his leave has nothing to do with the shooting incident.

“The settlement does not reflect our change in view about Rodriguez, but reflects a wide variety of other factors we had to consider,” Leroe-Munoz said.

Councilman Perry Woodward wished ABAG had fought harder for a retrial.

“I would have liked to see the City take its chances on the appeal rather than settle,” Woodward said. “What happened that night was a tragedy, but it was a tragedy of Mr. Singh’s own making, and Rodriguez did what he had to do given the circumstances.”

Woodward said he firmly believes that Rodriguez did everything a well-trained officer would have done the night of the shooting, and that the family’s lawyer did a “very good job” on playing to the jury’s sympathy for a woman and two young children left without a father to raise them.

“It was about reaching into the perceived deep pockets of the City. Here you have this family without a breadwinner now and you have the chance to hold the City accountable, which is perceived to have the financial resources to pay up,” he said.

Dillon thought the choice to settle was smart.

“We’re sorry it happened because it resulted in a death. You never like to see that from your police department – although our position is and always was that the officer acted in self defense, the jury saw it differently, and that’s just the way the system works,” Dillon said.

Council members Cat Tucker, Dion Bracco and Peter Arellano did not respond for comment.

Pinheiro said the decision to not push for a retrial was in the City’s best interest. Pinheiro offered no comments on how settling was in the best interest for the City, or what resources Council was protecting in their decision.

“It’s just what we felt needed to be done,” he said.

A criminal grand jury cleared Rodriguez of any charges in July 2008 because of a lack of evidence to indict, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

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