L.A. Faces Cost of Damages In Rodney King Civil Suit

AS the final phase of Rodney King's civil suit enters its second day today, city officials, residents, and legal pundits alike are trying to assess the impact of compensatory damages awarded this week.

Three years after the March 3, 1991, beating emblazoned Mr. King's name across the national landscape as a symbol of police brutality, a federal jury Wednesday ordered Los Angeles to pay him $3.8 million in compensatory damages for lost income over a lifetime and expenses for injuries he suffered.

The jury returned yesterday to begin hearing evidence to determine if King should collect punitive damages from 14 individual defendants. Included among those are the four officers accused in two previous trials, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, and other officers present at the beating.

``I would certainly think that this verdict [$3,816,535.45 in compensatory damages], although higher than what some [City Council] members would have liked, is lower than what they feared,'' said City Attorney James Hahn. The unanimous judgment by the seven-woman, three-man jury was far less than the $15 million asked for by King's attorneys but far higher than the $800,000 the city called for in its closing arguments.

According to Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law who has closely watched all three King trials, the $3.8 million is ``generous, at least, and possibly excessive in the eyes of many.'' But it is more important as the base figure establishing a cap on possible punitive damages, which by one legal formula can be three times as high.

The city admitted liability in the case and is unlikely to appeal the decision on compensatory damages. But Myrna Raeder, vice chairwoman of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section's Committee on Federal Rules of Evidence, says the issue of who pays the defendant's punitive damages will be ``a major political question for the city because, in the past, the city has usually done so but is not legally obligated to do so.''

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