Woman wins police sex case vs. city of Reno
By SCOTT SONNER
RENO (AP) – A federal jury found the city of Reno guilty of
negligence Tuesday and awarded $100,000 in damages to a woman who
accused a police officer of coercing her to strip naked in his patrol
car when she was a teenager five years ago.
State tort laws cap negligence damages in Nevada at $50,000 and city
attorneys said they are considering asking a judge to set aside the
unanimous verdict in U.S. District Court.
But for Elizabeth Eoff, now 22, it was the first good news she’d heard
in a courtroom since she first testified against ex-police Sgt. Paul
Pitsnogle at his state criminal trial on a charge of lewdness in 2006.
A Washoe District Court jury cleared Pitsnogle of any wrongdoing, but he
subsequently was fired as a result of an internal police investigation.
On Tuesday, one of her lawyers said Eoff felt “numb” sitting silently as
the five-man, three-woman jury returned the verdict in the high-profile
case that over the years has caused divisions within the Reno Police
“She feels vindicated,” Scott Freeman told The Associated Press. “She
finally got justice.”
The panel awarded her more than $100,000 for past and future medical
costs resulting from the trauma she suffered due to the city’s failure
to properly supervise the officer, who had a reputation for failing to
apprise dispatchers of his whereabouts.
Deputy Reno City Attorney Jack Campbell said the city has 28 days to
decide whether to ask the judge to set aside the verdict. Even when
capped at $50,000, he said he believes the jury wrongly based its
decision more on sympathy than the evidence.
“The evidence really did not support a finding against us,” Campbell
Eoff said she has undergone constant counseling since the incident and
moved from Reno to try to ease the painful memories. She recently earned
an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of California,
Berkeley, and is applying to law schools.
“It was very brave for her to come forward when she was 17 to file a
complaint against Reno police and especially Sgt. Pitsnogle,” Freeman
said Tuesday. “The system finally worked for her.”
The Associated Press does not normally identify people who say they are
the victim of sexual abuse but her lawyers said Tuesday that she doesn’t
object to being named publicly.
William Jeanney, another lawyer for Eoff, said during the five-day trial
before U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson that the same Reno city officials
who later fired Pitsnogle knew at the time that he routinely broke
department rules and had a reputation as a “cowboy out on his own.”
Campbell argued that the city was not responsible for Pitsnogle’s
actions. The officer claimed at the time that Eoff was trying to bribe
him with sex to get out of a drunken driving charge. If that was true,
Campbell said he should have arrested her.
“He did not and that’s why we fired him,” Campbell said. “We took away
his gun, his badge and his right to be a police officer and we never
gave it back.”
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said last week.
Campbell estimated Tuesday’s jury award to total between $112,000 and
$120,000, which he said was less than 10 percent of the $1.3 million
that could have been awarded. He said the city was most pleased to be
cleared of claims it violated Eoff’s civil rights.
“They said we did nothing wrong there,” Campbell said. “That’s very
important to us.”
Although state law caps negligence damages at $50,000, Eoff’s lawyers
can file for reimbursement of additional costs up to the total jury
Freeman said Eoff never was in it for the money.
“We felt Ms. Eoff got justice in this case, whether it was $1 or $50,000
or $1.3 million,” he told AP. “The jury came back and found the city was
negligent in their supervision.”
Freeman said he believes the current police department led by Chief
Steve Pitts has “taken tremendous strides to correct the behavior that
existed in 2006 and is doing the right thing at this point.”
The two sides had battled over a number of pretrial motions, each
seeking to disqualify the other’s lawyers in a dispute over numerous
subpoenas the defense team served on past and present police officers.
Freeman said it was difficult to “rip through the blue code of silence”
to find officers who would voluntarily testify.
“The ones who did were very courageous,” he said. “I’m encouraged this
verdict will send a loud message that police officers are just like
anybody else – there are good ones and bad ones.”