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Paul, Weiss Wins $475,000 in Damages for Pro Bono Client in Excessive Force Lawsuit

Paul, Weiss pro bono client Steven Thomas won his Section 1983 excessive force trial against Nassau County Police Officer John Wellenreuther. Following a one-day bench trial on March 16 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Anne Y. Shields in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the court held that Wellenreuther violated Thomas’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force, and awarded Thomas $475,000 in compensatory damages for his physical and mental pain and suffering.

In October 2011, Wellenreuther, who was off duty and wearing civilian clothes at the time, shot Thomas in the back of his neck as Thomas, unarmed, fled the site of a robbery at a gas station convenience store. Wellenreuther believed Thomas had committed the robbery, and shot at him in the station parking lot, missing him. Wellenreuther then saw Thomas discard a BB gun, and saw the gun fall into to the street. When Thomas ran, Wellenreuther gave chase and shot at Thomas again, this time hitting the back of Thomas’s neck.

The court concluded that because Wellenreuther took this second shot knowing Thomas was unarmed and fleeing, it constituted excessive force in violation of Thomas’s constitutional rights; Wellenreuther did not have a reasonable basis to believe that Thomas posed an immediate danger to Wellenreuther or to others.

Thomas was taken by ambulance to a hospital. After the shooting, Thomas suffered from anxiety, depression and PTSD. The court awarded Thomas $400,000 in compensatory damages for his physical injuries and $75,000 for his emotional injuries.

Thomas initially pursued his claims pro se. The court appointed Paul, Weiss as trial counsel in October 2019, after discovery had closed. The Paul, Weiss team secured several key pre-trial rulings excluding evidence of the criminal investigation of the gas station robbery. Litigation associates Robert O’Loughlin and Nina Kovalenko argued the motions in limine.

The court held trial in person on March 16. Robert O’Loughlin conducted the direct examination of our client, and litigation partner Eric Stone cross-examined Wellenreuther. The court specifically credited Thomas’s testimony and discredited Wellenreuther’s testimony in the few places where they disagreed.

The Paul, Weiss team included litigation partner Eric Stone and associates Nina Kovalenko, Jessica Fuhrman, Danielle Lazarus and Rajdeep Dhaliwal.

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