A federal judge has awarded $250,000 to the son of a 60-year-old St. John the Baptist Parish woman who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy after allegedly refusing to cooperate during a 2013 traffic stop.
The civil rights complaint, filed in 2013, claimed that Barbara Jean Lassere, of LaPlace, was shot “without provocation, justification or probable cause” in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 2013.
A two-day jury trial that wrapped up Feb. 9 found Lassere was 50 percent at fault in the incident. The jury also found four Sheriff’s Office deputies — Steven Dailey, Jose Rel, Cleven Remondet and Michelle Pierson — were negligent in the fatal incident, and it recommended awarding $500,000 in compensatory damages to Lassere’s son, Norvel, who filed the lawsuit.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson Jr. cut the amount of damages in half.
He made his ruling Feb. 10.
The contested issues in the case included whether Lassere was shot without provocation and whether she fired a gun before she was shot, as the deputies contended.
The lawsuit contended that Lassere was pulled over by a St. John Parish deputy, Keith Carroll, near West 5th and Elm streets in LaPlace. Court filings ultimately painted a picture of Lassere getting pulled over, growing nervous and evading authorities for a few blocks — maneuvering around their vehicles and running over a set of spike tips intended to blow out her tires — before pulling into her driveway.
Additional deputies responded to the scene, and Lassere “became increasingly confused and frightened” as she was “surrounded by flashing lights, guns and dogs,” according to court filings.
A follow-up report compiled by Louisiana State Police noted that Carroll pulled Lassere over near a carwash because her headlights were off, court filings show. Carroll and Dailey tried to get Lassere out of the car, but instead she turned on her lights, allegedly displayed a handgun inside her car and kept driving home.
According to the lawsuit, Lassere “attempted to respond to numerous conflicting and shouted demands, putting her hands on the steering wheel, outside the driver’s side window and up in the air in front of her.”
A Jan. 29 pretrial order signed by Wilkinson that outlines both sides’ arguments on the case noted that Norvel Lassere contended that “even though Ms. Lassere was not holding a firearm, and beginning to cooperate with police, her refusal to follow the defendants’ conflicting commands agitated the officers.”
Lassere further contended that “despite dealing with a frightened and disturbed citizen (she expressed to the officers that she thought that they wanted to ‘kill her’), and instead of waiting her out or using more appropriate strategies to de-escalate the situation, the decision was made to break in a car window near her head, with the intent to let a canine in the car to attack her,” the order said. “Quite predictably, the smashing of the window resulted in both Lassere and the deputies being startled.”
Lassere was startled when the window was broken, and Pierson — situated near the passenger side — shouted “gun,” prompting Dailey to fire six shots at Lassere from the car’s rear, the order states. The lawsuit contends that Pierson “did not actually see a gun.”
Lassere was shot either as she sat in the car or as she moved from the shattered window.
However, the pretrial order said lawyers for the deputies claimed Lassere fired at the deputies before she was shot. She already had threatened to shoot Carroll and Dailey if they did not leave her alone, they alleged.
“As they were speaking to her, Deputy Steven Dailey observed her raise her arms and point toward him,” according to the defense. “He believed that she had a gun and was planning to shoot him and the other deputies. Fearing for his safety and the safety of the others on the scene, he fired into the vehicle.”
Norvel Lassere’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, alleged in court filings that the notion of the gun was a “fabrication to cover the bad shoot.”
Jenkins’ suit sought $5 million in compensation for general damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
Sheriff Mike Tregre said he plans to appeal the jury’s decision. “No one wanted this tragedy to happen,” he said.
The Lassere case is just one of several civil rights lawsuits that have been filed against Tregre’s office in recent years.
The sister of a LaPlace man who died last year after being subdued with a Taser stun device by a St. John Sheriff’s Office deputy filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the office in December. The nine-page lawsuit, filed in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard, alleges that Ennis Labaux, 37, was shocked with a stun device multiple times for a total of 37 seconds in less than one minute while other officers placed handcuffs and then leg restraints on him.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.