A federal jury awarded a $4 million verdict Friday to a motorcyclist who says he was standing still with his hands raised when he was battered by a now-former LeFlore County undersheriff four years ago.
Plaintiff’s attorney Dan Smolen said he asked jurors for $2 million in a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations and was humbled when they gave Chad Osterhout double that figure. The defendants were former Undersheriff Kendall Morgan and the LeFlore County Board of County Commissioners.
The FBI is investigating a civil rights case against Morgan.
A blow — reportedly with a flashlight — broke Osterhout’s nose and a bone in his forehead and cut his face.
“I was never put in jail or arrested,” Osterhout, 46, told the Tulsa World, saying the undersheriff and another deputy told him to get out of town. “They hoped I would disappear and never come back. … I came back, anyway, and I’m glad I did.”
Morgan and Deputy Jason Timms later cited Osterhout, who is from Rogers County, for driving under the influence, attempting to elude an officer and resisting arrest. But they didn’t perform a field sobriety test or request tests while Osterhout was hospitalized to determine whether he had been driving under the influence.
The charges against Osterhout were dismissed, and he pleaded no contest to a speeding charge, court records indicate.
The lawsuit contended that the allegations were “trumped up” to hide excessive uses of force that day in June 2015.
The trial began Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Muskogee, and the jury ultimately awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
“While Mr. Osterhout was lying on the ground with his hands still overhead, Officer Morgan handcuffed him and then kneed him several times in the ribs,” according to an appeal court’s summary of the encounter in a legal decision rendered before the trial. “At no point during this encounter did Mr. Osterhout resist Officer Morgan or attempt to flee.
“Mr. Osterhout further testified in his deposition that as Officer Morgan kneed him in the ribs he said, ‘Take that, you hippy motherf-----. That’s what you get for coming to my town, you hippy motherf------.’”
The ordeal reportedly began as a misunderstanding and a brief pursuit.
Osterhout testified that he had stopped on a road to light a cigarette and motioned for an approaching vehicle to pass him. The car sped up toward him, and an alarmed Osterhout drove off at a high speed, not realizing that the approaching vehicle belonged to the Sheriff’s Office.
The car didn’t have rooftop lights, and whether an audible siren sounded once the driver turned on flashing blue lights was a point of contention.
Osterhout pulled over a quarter-mile later when he realized that LeFlore County markings were on the vehicle’s side, he said.
“The sheriff’s vehicle arrived a moment later and struck the backside of the motorcycle, throwing Mr. Osterhout off the motorcycle and into the ditch,” court documents state. “Mr. Osterhout immediately stood up with his hands in the air, facing the patrol car and blinded by its head lights.
“Officer Morgan appeared out of the lights and without warning hit Mr. Osterhout in the face with his closed fist and/or a flashlight.”
Morgan’s account greatly differed in that he testified that Osterhout attempted to run away and ignored verbal commands to stop and show his hands, according to the appeals court summary. Morgan maintained that Osterhout moved aggressively toward him, and he testified that he kneed Osterhout because Osterhout resisted being handcuffed.
Smolen said law enforcement reports tried to pass off Osterhout’s injuries as a motorcycle crash.
“I think that the officer is telling a complete fabrication, and I believe the jury saw it as a complete fabrication,” Smolen said.
The Tulsa World’s attempts to contact LeFlore County Sheriff Rob Seale for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.
County Commissioner Lance Smith deferred comment to fellow Commissioner Craig Olive — who he said sat in on the trial. Olive didn’t return messages left by the Tulsa World.
Morgan and Timms, who was the car’s driver, later said they decided to investigate Osterhout because he had left a suspected drug house.
Osterhout said he now walks with a limp and shies away from crowds. He has persistent headaches and can’t feel some of his teeth. He has long hair and describes himself as a country boy, not a “hippie.”
“The power of prayer works; I’ve been praying for four years, four months,” he said. “I finally got vindicated that I didn’t do anything wrong, that it was just a straight-up abuse of power over how somebody looks.”