Appeals court tosses $44.7 million verdict in shooting by off-duty Chicago cop, says city can’t be held liable

Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out a historic $44.7 million judgment against the city stemming from a shooting by an off-duty Chicago cop, saying that while the incident that left the cop’s friend paralyzed was “tragic,” the city cannot be held liable.

The ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was widely expected, wipes out the decision by a jury nearly four years ago that found the city had repeatedly failed to identify Officer Patrick Kelly as a problem before he shot his friend in the head after a night of heavy drinking.

The 24-page opinion, written by Chief Judge Diane Sykes and joined by Judge Michael Kanne, said that while the victim, Michael LaPorta, indeed suffered grievous, life-altering injuries, the “legal theory for holding the city liable is deeply flawed.”

“LaPorta’s case is tragic. His injuries are among the gravest imaginable. His life will never be the same,” Sykes wrote. “But ... because none of LaPorta’s federal rights were violated, the verdict against the City of Chicago cannot stand.”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett participated in the oral arguments in December 2019 but has since been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court and was not a part of the ruling.

A spokesperson for the cit’s Law Department was not immediately available for comment.

LaPorta’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, called the ruling “intensely concerning,“ not only because it denies justice to LaPorta but also sets a precedent for the city “in terms of accountability for police officers and the culture of impunity at CPD.”

“We vigorously commit to continuing this fight for Mr. LaPorta in the weeks and months to come,” the emailed statement read.

A federal jury had found in 2017 that Kelly shot LaPorta toward the back of his head after a night of heavy drinking in January 2010. The panel awarded LaPorta — who suffered catastrophic injuries and now requires round-the-clock care — a record-breaking $44.7 million after it determined the Chicago Police Department’s lax disciplinary practices emboldened the officer and instilled the belief he could act with impunity.

It had been the highest jury award for a police misconduct case in Illinois history. Kelly’s personal insurance settled with LaPorta’s for $300,000, the maximum allowed under the policy, years before trial.

After the verdict, the city took the rare step of acknowledging the patrolman and the Police Department failed to properly investigate the incident.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability reopened an investigation into the shooting in 2017, following a Tribune investigation. Though investigators initially found in 2011 that there wasn’t enough evidence to hold Kelly responsible for the shooting, the oversight agency determined in 2019 that Kelly had pulled the trigger and then lied about it for nine years.

Then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson agreed with COPA’s revised findings and moved to fire Kelly in October 2019. The termination case is still pending.

But it was clear during the appellate arguments that the 7th Circuit was skeptical of the city’s liability, regardless of Kelly’s troubled past.

“The harm was inflicted by the off-duty officer,” Sykes said at the time. “The city did not violate anybody’s bodily integrity, the off-duty officer did.”

Sykes wrote in the opinion released Tuesday that the state is not obligated to protect individuals against “private violence.”

“When Kelly shot LaPorta, he was not acting as a Chicago police officer but as a private citizen,” the opinion stated.

Kelly did not face criminal charges in connection with the shooting. Cook County prosecutors reviewed the case in 2010 and determined a jury was unlikely to find the longtime patrolman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is higher than the preponderance standard required for termination.

Kelly was stripped of his police powers after he refused to answer questions on the witness stand during the LaPorta trial. But he remained employed by the department despite the jury’s finding and continued to receive his $87,000-a-year salary until he took disability leave in 2019.