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McRae v. Pfeffer

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

August 9, 2019

MICHELLE MCRAE, Administrator for the Estate of Kevin Dijon Grissett, Plaintiff,
JACOB RANSONE PFEFFER, individually, Defendant.


          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on plaintiff's motion for new trial. (DE 168). The motion has been fully briefed, and in this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the following reasons, the court denies plaintiff's motion.


         Jury trial in this matter commenced February 20, 2019, on claims brought by plaintiff, as representative for the estate of her deceased son, Kevin Dijon Grissett (“Grissett”), alleging excessive force used by defendant Jacob Pfeffer, law enforcement officer with the town of Hope Mills police department. All claims arise out of a February 1, 2014, traffic stop and ensuing pursuit which concluded when defendant shot Grissett multiple times. Grissett died from complications of the shooting.

         A special interrogatory was submitted to the jury on February 28, 2019, in which the jury determined Grissett was not complying with defendant's instructions at the moment he was first shot. Based on this finding, the court held as a matter of law that defendant was entitled to qualified immunity under federal law and public officer immunity under North Carolina law, thus rendering judgment in favor of defendant. Plaintiff filed the instant motion on March 15, 2019, seeking new trial.

         For case background purposes, the court incorporates herein by reference the statement of the case and statement of facts from its March 30, 2018, order on defendant and formerly-named defendants' motions for summary judgment. (See Sum. J. Order (DE 79) at 1-8). The court describes the evidence introduced at trial in more detail in the analysis herein.


         A. Standard of Review

         A new trial may be granted if “(1) the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or (2) is based upon evidence which is false, or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict.” Cline v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 294, 301 (4th Cir. 1998). On a motion for new trial, the court is “permitted to weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of witnesses.” Id. “The decision to grant or deny a new trial is within the sound discretion of the district court.” Id. “Unless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence . . . is ground for granting a new trial, ” if the error “do[es] not affect [a] party's substantial rights.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 61; see Duty v. E. Coast Tender Serv., Inc., 660 F.2d 933, 942 (4th Cir. 1981).

         B. Analysis

         1. Use of Special Interrogatory

         The relevant, undisputed facts presented at trial are as follows: On the day in question, defendant attempted to pull over a vehicle driven by Grissett and a roughly 10-minute car chase ensued, ending with Grissett's vehicle striking two police officer vehicles, including defendant's. Defendant then exited his vehicle, moved towards Grissett's vehicle, and directed Grissett to put his hands up, to which Grissett initially complied.

         The key issue disputed at trial was under what circumstances, when defendant arrived at Grissett's vehicle, did defendant open fire on Grissett, with plaintiff contending Grissett was immobile, with his hands up as directed, and defendant contending Grissett was lunging into the floorboard for what defendant perceived to be a weapon.

The following was submitted to the jury, following trial, in the form of special interrogatory:
Plaintiff contends that Kevin Grissett was complying with defendant's instructions at the moment he was first shot.
Was Kevin Grissett complying with defendant's instructions at the moment he was first shot?
YES__ NO__

(DE 165).[1]

         The jury marked “NO” in response and the court found as a matter of law based on this response that defendant was entitled to qualified immunity and public officer's immunity, rendering verdict in defendant's favor. See, e .g., Anderson v. Russell, 247 F.3d 125, 128, 132 (4th Cir. 2001) (holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity for shooting a man suspected of carrying a gun who initially complied with commands, but later lowered his hands and reached into his back left pocket toward a bulge under his clothing); Slattery v. Rizzo, 939 F.2d 213, 214-17 (4th Cir. 1991) (holding that the shooting of an individual, suspected of narcotics trafficking, was objectively reasonable when the suspect ignored commands to raise his hands and turned in the officers' direction with his hand partially closed around an object); Smith v. State, 289 N.C. 303, 331 (1976) (“As long as a public officer lawfully exercises the judgment and discretion with which he is invested by virtue of his office, keeps within the scope of his official authority, and acts without malice or corruption, he is protected from liability.”).

         Plaintiff does not argue that based on the jury's response to the special interrogatory, defendant was not entitled to immunity. Additionally, plaintiff admits that “plaintiff did not object to the formation” of the special interrogatory when submitted to the jury. (DE 171 at 8). However, plaintiff now argues that “both the Court and the Plaintiff operated under the misapplication of the law as presented by Defendant, ” and that “the instructions given by Defendant Pfeffer is a totally separate and legal distinct question from whether Defendant Pfeffer used excessive deadly force, ” which should have been submitted to the jury. (Id. at 6-8).

         In support, plaintiff cites United States v. Burton, 228 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 2000); however, Burton is of limited relevance in the present context, where the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held as follows:

In asserting that officers are entitled, during a police-citizen encounter, to conduct a limited search for weapons when a reasonable officer in similar circumstances would believe that his safety was in danger, the government misconstrues the relevant principles of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. In the language of the Supreme Court, Burton had a “right to go about his business or to stay put and remain silent in the face of police questioning, ” . . . and an individual's “refusal to cooperate, without more, does not furnish the minimal level of objective justification needed for detention or seizure, ” ..... There is no evidence in the record that Burton made any moves as Officer Burke approached. He simply continued to stand by the telephone booth with his hand in his pocket. He did refuse to talk with the policemen and to remove his hand from his pocket, but something more is required to establish reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. And in the absence of reasonable suspicion, an officer may ...

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