Federal judge tosses Pellerin family’s civil suit against LCG

protesters at Lafayette City-Parish Hall after Trayford Pellerin was shot by LPD
The Aug. 21, 2020, police shooting death of Trayford Pellerin sparked weeks of local protests. Last month a federal judge dismissed the family's claims against LCG.

A federal judge has dismissed all claims in a civil lawsuit filed by the family of Trayford Pellerin, a Black man shot and killed by Lafayette Police officers in August 2020, sparking months of community outrage and protests. 

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Summerhays granted LCG’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety last month and dismissed with prejudice claims against LCG, then Lafayette Police Chief Scott Morgan, the officer defendants and LCG’s insurers. 

The family’s civil lawsuit alleged officers violated Pellerin’s constitutional rights when they shot him as he attempted to enter a convenience store on NE Evangeline Thruway after multiple 911 disturbance calls from another nearby convenience store led to a foot pursuit of the 31 year old. 

In their claim that LPD used unreasonable or excessive force, the plaintiffs challenged whether officers should have pursued Pellerin in the first place. They conceded that Pellerin was “behaving strangely,” but said he was not threatening anyone and had not committed a crime, thus there was no basis for the responding officers to pursue him and escalate their use of force.

The judge, however, appears to have leaned on evidence from body cam video and officers’ statements, noting that Pellerin was “brandishing a knife and behaving erratically when the responding officers first encountered him.” The judge wrote that Pellerin ignored the officers’ commands and instead entered a busy thoroughfare while attempting to evade the officers, and cited an officer’s statement that Pellerin swung the knife toward him and yelled, “F**k the dog.” He also pointed out the failed attempts to subdue Pellerin with Tasers.

“[C]onsidering the record as a whole, Plaintiffs’ first argument does not create a triable issue on whether the responding officers used unreasonable or excessive force,” Summerhays wrote.

While the plaintiffs did not dispute whether Pellerin was still armed with the knife when he put his hand on the door of the convenience store, they did challenge whether police had reason to believe patrons in the store were in danger. On this second excessive force claim, the judge also sided with the defense: “Plaintiffs do not point to any evidence supporting their position that the convenience store customers were not visible, nor do they point to any evidence contradicting the officers’ account of viewing customers in the store and that they feared for their safety.” 

Pellerin’s family will appeal the judge’s decision, according to their attorney, Ron Haley. Haley did not offer any additional comment.

“As all of this occurred prior to my appointment as city-parish attorney, I am not in a position to make any comment,” says City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger, who was approved to the post at last night’s council meetings.

Plaintiffs do not point to any evidence supporting their position that the convenience store customers were not visible, nor do they point to any evidence contradicting the officers’ account of viewing customers in the store and that they feared for their safety.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Summerhays

The August 2020 shooting death came only months after George Floyd was handcuffed, pinned to the ground and murdered by Minneapolis Police officers, touching off nationwide protests demanding social justice and police reforms. The Pellerin shooting likewise sparked weeks of public outcry locally. 

About a month after the shooting, Mayor-President Josh Guillory authorized the limited release of body cam footage, allowing family members and their attorneys to hear and see pixelated body cam footage in its entirety from the first officer to respond to the original scene. At the time, the Pellerin family’s attorneys said they were shown only one video among dozens from the fateful night. 

When Guillory volunteered to show video of the incident to Pellerin’s family, attorneys representing the officers went to court to stop him; they argued the administration was violating due process laid out by Louisiana’s police officers bill of rights. 

Since then, Lafayette has failed to make steps toward adopting a release policy.

After Louisiana State Police investigated the Pellerin shooting and a Lafayette grand jury declined to prosecute the LPD officers who fired the fatal shots, additional video was released. 

In their lawsuit, the Pellerins sought to establish a pattern of misconduct by the LPD, saying they found “a clear pattern of excessive and improper use of force, including lethal force, against African-Americans like Mr. Pellerin.” 

They stated that between 2010 and 2019 there were 107 civil lawsuits filed against LPD and that LPD officers submitted “1,172 use of force reports … equating to one approximately every 3 days.” But the judge ruled that they did not provide evidence supporting their pattern allegations and instead focused on the events of the day that culminated in Pellerin’s shooting death.

“A plaintiff must place these past occurrences in context to support the inference that the municipality knew about and accepted a wide-spread course of unconstitutional conduct,” the judge wrote. “Specifically, Plaintiffs’ allegations with respect to the 107 lawsuits filed against LPD from 2010 through 2019 do not describe the nature or circumstances of the conduct at issue in 100 of those 107 cases.”

The judge also found that the plaintiffs failed to point to a pattern of specific training or supervisory failures on the part of Chief Morgan. “Defendants also submitted an expert report opining that the responding officers in this case complied with generally accepted policies, practices, and training in escalating the force used against Pellerin, which Plaintiffs did not dispute,” Summerhays wrote. 

The judge further noted that the plaintiffs missed federal and state statutory deadlines to amend their complaint to substitute the actual names of the 10 “John Doe” responding police officers they sued after the case was stayed to allow for the state police investigation. “The names of the LPD officers involved in Pellerin’s shooting are reflected in the reports and records of both the Louisiana State police and LPD, all of which was discoverable,” he wrote.