LAWYERS WEEKLY: PAYMENT RESOLVES SUIT OVER POLICE SHOOTING DEATH
By: Phillip Bantz March 31, 2016
A pair of rulings against the Seneca Police Department served as the catalyst for a $2.15 million settlement to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit over the shooting death of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond, according to an attorney for the young man’s family.
The settlement was reached March 30, eight days after U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin McDonald of Greenville ordered the police department to hand over more than 800 emails that it had exchanged with a public relations firm the city hired in the aftermath of Hammond’s killing in July 2015.
“From what we understand, there’s some very, very damaging stuff in those emails … a lot of stuff was said about how they were going to spin the story,” said Eric Bland, a Columbia-based attorney who represents the Hammonds with his law partner Ronnie Richter of Charleston.
The city had tried to shield the documents by asserting attorney-client privilege.
“You can’t hire a media company to run a media campaign and then shelter the communications you have with each other, because it’s not under the shelter of seeking legal advice,” Bland said.
The city and its attorneys had also failed in their fight to prevent the release of a dash cam video of undercover Seneca police Lt. Mark Tiller shooting Hammond during a bungled drug sting in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.
Tiller asserted that Hammond was trying to run him over with a car when he opened fire at point-blank range through an open driver’s side window. But the video showed that Tiller was not in the direct path of the car as Hammond drove away.
While the state has declined to pursue criminal charges against Tiller, his attorneys in the civil case revealed in a motion asking the court to postpone Tiller’s deposition that federal investigators were looking at the shooting.
The motion also disclosed that witnesses had been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury and “it is possible that a federal indictment is forthcoming.”
“Mr. Tiller faces the prospect of profound criminal exposure as result of the on-going criminal investigation. As a result, the active investigation profoundly and detrimentally impacts Mr. Tiller’s ability to participate in his upcoming deposition,” Tiller’s attorneys wrote in a March 17 motion requesting the court to stay his upcoming deposition for 90 days.
But McDonald denied the motion, holding that Tiller was free to plead the Fifth during his videotaped deposition in the civil case.
“We all know though that there is an adverse inference in a civil case that the jury will be charged if he takes the Fifth,” Bland said. He added, “The combination of Tiller having to go under oath and the documents [emails] being released really drove the settlement.”
An attorney for Tiller, Drew Butler of Richardson Plowden in Charleston, declined to discuss the case.
The parties released a joint statement after the settlement in which they said that “an early resolution will allow a platform for healing for the Hammond family and the city of Seneca that is outside the spotlight of litigation.”
The city is taking $250,000 from its general fund to help pay for the settlement and will raise property taxes to offset the loss, according to Bland. He said the South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund would pay the remaining $1.9 million.