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Federal appeals court tosses $44.7M judgment against city in shooting that left man severely disabled

A jury in 2017 found that onetime Chicago Police Officer Patrick Kelly shot his friend, Michael LaPorta, while off-duty. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Kelly “was not acting as a Chicago police officer but as a private citizen” when LaPorta was shot.

Michael D. LaPorta, who accused Chicago Police Officer Patrick Kelly of shooting him in the head, enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday, October 17th, 2017.
Michael D. LaPorta, who accused Chicago Police Officer Patrick Kelly of shooting him in the head, enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday, October 17th, 2017.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The federal appellate court in Chicago on Tuesday overturned a significant $44.7 million judgment over an officer-involved shooting that was handed to the city more than three years ago by jurors who said they wanted to send a message about police misconduct.

A jury in 2017 found that Chicago Police Officer Patrick Kelly, while off-duty and in his home after a night of drinking, shot his friend Michael LaPorta and left him permanently disabled. Crucially, the jury also held City Hall responsible for the shooting with the hefty $44.7 million verdict.

But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that verdict Tuesday. It found that Kelly “was not acting as a Chicago police officer but as a private citizen” when LaPorta was shot. Chief Appellate Judge Diane Sykes authored the opinion and told U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber to enter judgment in favor of the city.

“LaPorta’s case is tragic,” Sykes wrote. “His injuries are among the gravest imaginable. His life will never be the same.” Still, she concluded, “The verdict against the City of Chicago cannot stand.”

In a written statement after the ruling, Chicago’s Law Department said the decision followed “legal principles that the Supreme Court settled long ago.”

“Action that police officers take in their own home, after a night of drinking, and in other circumstances where they make not even a pretense of enforcing the law, is private conduct,” it said. “We have maintained that position since the beginning of this case, and courts across the country have reached the same conclusion repeatedly. The court’s decision today merely reaffirms those principles.”

Max Caproni, executive director of the Chicago Police Board, said disciplinary proceedings against Kelly are set for a hearing before the Police Board next month. A Chicago police spokesperson said Kelly has been suspended without pay.

Chicago Police Officer Patrick Kelly (left) enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in 2017.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

LaPorta’s attorney, Antonio Romanucci, called the appellate court’s decision “intensely concerning, not only as it relates to delivering much-needed justice for Michael LaPorta and his life-changing traumatic brain injuries, but also for the City of Chicago and the precedent this case sets in terms of accountability for police officers and the culture of impunity at CPD.”

Romanucci vowed in his emailed statement that his firm will be “continuing this fight for Mr. LaPorta in the weeks and months to come.”

Following the verdict in October 2017, two jurors told reporters it had been meant to send a message. One said, “You cannot get away with this if you’re a police officer in the city of Chicago.”

The shooting in question took place more than a decade ago, on Jan. 12, 2010. LaPorta and Kelly had gone drinking, hitting two bars before going to Kelly’s house. There, courtroom testimony suggested the two got into an argument over Kelly’s dog.

At trial in 2017, Kelly invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself 31 times. But LaPorta testified, “I know he shot me.” He denied that he shot himself.

Kelly called 911 after the shooting, calmly telling a dispatcher, “I have a friend that committed suicide … He’s dead right now.” But soon, his tone changed, and he abruptly blurted out the words, “He’s still breathing!”

Sykes said the shooting left LaPorta severely and permanently disabled. “He is unable to walk, has cognitive deficits, and cannot use his right arm,” Sykes wrote. “He is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.”

However, she also wrote that “the theory of the case was novel” and pushed back against LaPorta’s argument that Chicago’s policy failures led to his shooting. Sykes wrote that Kelly’s actions “were wholly unconnected to his duties as a Chicago police officer.”

“He was off duty,” Sykes wrote. “He shot LaPorta after they spent a night out drinking together and had returned to his home to continue socializing at the end of the evening. Kelly’s actions were those of a private citizen in the course of a purely private social interaction. This was, in short, an act of private violence.”