$25 Million Lawsuit Dismissed In John Eric Thomas Shooting

  • Thursday, September 18, 2003

Federal Judge Al Edgar has dismissed a $25 million lawsuit by a man who was shot seven times by a Chattanooga Police officer at his home.

Judge Edgar said in a 30-page opinion that plaintiffs did not show a pattern of use of excessive force by the Chattanooga Police.

The suit was filed by John Eric Thomas and his wife, Heather Thomas.

Attorney Jerry Summers earlier said the shooting by police of the man who was allegedly holding guns on his wife on Memorial Day 2002 was justified. Mr. Summers said he had been retained by the Police Benevolence Association to represent Officer Reginald Abernathy.

John Eric Thomas suffered serious injuries when he was shot repeatedly.

His wife later claimed the shooting was unnecessary and that she was not being threatened.

Ms. Thomas said police "jumped the gun" in the case. She denied that her husband was threatening her with two pistols when police began firing inside the house. She said he was putting the guns up that she had just handed to him.

Mrs. Thomas said, "The police didn't announce themselves. They didn't call for him to put the guns down. They just started shooting."

Family members earlier said one bullet went into his chest and collapsed a lung. They said he was also shot in the colon and that he may have to permanently use a colostomy bag. Another bullet shattered his left arm.

The opinion says Officer Abernathy was dispatched to the Thomas home after a neighbor complained of "squealing tires and people fighting and carrying on."

It says Eric Thomas arrived home and was looking for his guns when he yelled to his wife, who was then next door. She returned home and retrieved the firearms, bringing them to the kitchen. She laid the rifles on the kitchen counter and handed her husband a 9mm Beretta handgun. He already had a .357 Navy Arms revolver that he had brought from his truck.

It says Eric Thomas was just starting to leave the kitchen to put the guns away when he and Heather heard their dogs barking outside and heard the yard-gate chain rattling. Heather was near the kitchen door and about to open it when gunfire erupted.

The shots struck Eric Thomas as he was leaving the kitchen to go into a hallway.

The opinion says Eric Thomas was struck seven times in the back and left arm.

It says Officer Abernathy heard the couple screaming at one another. He saw the rifles and saw Eric Thomas with a gun in each hand. He observed Eric Thomas take a staggered step with his left foot toward the hallway, while Heather Thomas turned toward her left and reached for the kitchen door.

The officer said he does not believe he announced he was a police officer, saying there was not time to do so.

He said he saw Eric Thomas turning toward his wife and believed he was threatening her with the gun.

The officer said, "Mrs. Thomas started to back up and it looked like she had her hands down to her side. She didn't have them - but, you know, at some point there was no doubt in my mind, based on her expression and her body language, that she was in imminent danger."

He said he saw Mrs. Thomas back up with her hands out and that caused him to believe that both she and himself were in danger from Eric Thomas.

Officer Abernathy said, "Mr. Thomas took the step and he turned. That's when I started firing because her life I felt was in imminent danger."

He said he fired numerous shots "until he no longer perceived a threat from Eric Thomas."

The opinion says Officer Abernathy had been on the force nine years and had never shot anyone before. He also had no disciplinary action taken against him.

Plaintiffs called an expert, Phillip L. Davidson, who said there was "a culture of excessive force" in the city police department.

He noted that the internal affairs report written by Capt. Janet Crumley had called it "a good shooting."

Plaintiffs said in nine years there had been 45 civil suits in federal court against a police force of about 450 uniformed officers.

Judge Edgar said if the city police internal affairs concludes every 10 months that an excessive force complaint is "founded" that it is not sweeping such cases under the rug.

He said the evidence did not show that the city police condoned excessive force.

Costs were awarded to the city.

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