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Settlements Awarded to Victims of U.C. Davis Pepper Spray Debacle

It created the stanchions of a mainstream political media soapbox, as well as the basis for thousands of meme images posted across the internet, but now the University of California will pay out $630,000 in personal injury damages to more than twenty U.C.- Davis students who were doused with pepper spray by campus police during a videotaped protest in November that the Occupy movement used as the iconic example of excessive police force, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

In November of last year, a campus policeperson used pepper spray to move non-violent student protesters involved in an ‘Occupy’ demonstration, while simultaneously blocking the students’ exit from the school’s quad. Armed police in riot helmets showered demonstrators with the chemical irritant as the students sat with arms linked. The Chronicle reports that the students were protesting steep tuition hikes and the public university’s increasing financial ties to corporations.

According to the terms of the $1 million legal settlement that was announced Wednesday, the students will each receive about $30,000 and a written apology from the university chancellor. The settlement was negotiated on the students’ behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), reports the San Francisco Chronicle; $630,000 will go to the students involved in the protest, $100,000 is being set aside for claims from others who can prove they were sprayed during the incident, and an additional $250,000 is going the ACLU.

In addition, the school must assist any students who suffered academically because they were pepper sprayed. One plaintiff based his personal injury lawsuit on allegations that he had suffered emotional distress in the form of panic attacks in the days after the protest and was forced to avoid subsequent gatherings, fearful that it would happen again.

Under Illinois law, what’s known as a claim of “negligent infliction of emotional distress” may arise in situations like these. The underlying concept of this area of Illinois personal injury law is that individuals and businesses – including universities entrusted with the care of their students – have a general legal duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing emotional distress to another person. If the company or individual on behalf of the university fails in their duty and unreasonably causes emotional distress to another person, the actor may be held legally responsible, and may be made to pay damages to the harmed individual.

Jurisdictions, such as Illinois, allow for recovery for these types of claims in situations where the distress: 

1. is inflicted intentionally; or,

2. is directly associated with a physical injury negligently inflicted upon a victim; or,

3. is caused by defamation and libel; or,

4. stems from witnessing a gruesome accident as a bystander; or,

5. is the product of some misconduct universally recognized as causing emotional distress such as mishandling a loved one’s corpse, or failing to deliver a death notice in a timely manner.

In addition to compensating the victims for harm suffered, the lawsuit has spurred change in the way in which police respond to peaceful gatherings, ensuring that tensions do not escalate. Hopefully these lawsuits send a message strong enough to prevent heartbreak – and resultant memes – for good.