And the case has yet to go to trial; fees are expected to increase significantly
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
The city of Hemet has already spent more than $357,000 in legal fees defending Deputy Police Chief Charles “Rob” Webb in a wrongful death suit, and the case has not even gone to trial when fees are expected to mount even further.
Although City Attorney Eric Vail has told The Valley Chronicle that the city is engaged in representing Webb because he was operating within the course and scope of his police duties four years ago when he helped his Murrieta neighbor subdue an apparent intruder who later died, it turns out Webb’s insurance company also has attorneys working in his defense, said the plaintiff’s attorney, John A. Messina Jr., partner at Messina & Hankin LLP.
Questions remain whether the city should have injected itself into the case in the first place, according to court records and Messina.
“It may be interesting to note that the Court rejected Webb’s claim he was acting within course and scope of his employment twice; once when his Motion for Judgment on the Pleading was denied because the Complaint did not show on its face that Webb was acting in course and scope of his employment, and once, most recently, when his Motion for Summary Judgment was denied because the undisputed facts failed to establish as a matter of law that Webb was acting in course and scope,” said Messina. “Contrary to his previous sworn testimony, Webb claimed in a declaration in support of the Summary Judgment Motion that his conduct was consistent with his role as a Hemet police officer when he held Anthony Norman down on the street.”
Despite those claims and rejected court motions, Vail still asserts the city is responsible and cited a California government code that requires cities to provide a legal defense when an off-duty officer acts within the course and scope of the officer’s duties.
“In this case, Deputy Chief Webb assisted a member of the public in attempting to restrain a suspect while the local police were en route,” said Vail. “The City Council unanimously voted to provide Deputy Chief Webb with a legal defense in this lawsuit.”
“While Plaintiffs believe the facts do not support a finding that Webb was acting within course and scope of his employment as a Hemet Police Officer, the evidence submitted that he was and recent statements made in the press by the City Attorney supporting that contention, leave Plaintiffs no other choice than to file a claim against the City of Hemet for Webb’s actions that night,” said Messina.
According to billing records obtained through a California Public Records Act request, Nathan Oyster, a partner out of the Los Angeles office, has billed the city of Hemet more than $160,400 in services at a rate of $205 per hour. Christopher Kim, an associate also out of the firm’s Los Angeles office, has so far billed the city of Hemet $87,453 for services rendered, also at the hourly rate of $205. Both attorneys handle civil rights, general liability and employment litigation and defend public entities litigating officer-involved shootings, the use of force, false arrest, malicious prosecution, jail conditions, etc. Disbursements for expert opinions, etc. have totaled more than $91,000.
The facts of the case, according to court records and depositions uncovered by The Valley Chronicle, include the following:
On Dec. 25, 2012, around 11:30 p.m., then off-duty Captain Charles “Rob” Webb of the Hemet Police Department responded to a bang on the door of his home in Murrieta for assistance from a neighbor’s wife.
Webb, who was not in uniform, raced out of his house to assist his neighbor’s husband, Michael Darragh, in subduing a young man, Anthony Norman, aged 21. When Webb arrived, Darragh already had Norman face down in an arm-lock around the neck, according to Webb’s deposition in a wrongful death complaint filed by Norman’s family. The deposition is currently part of a public court record.
By the time paramedics arrived, Norman wasn’t breathing, and he was declared dead at the hospital, according to court records.
The trial in the wrongful death suit is scheduled for July 2017.