People For the American Way

Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Give Family of Man Shot by Police their Day in Court on Wrongful Death Claim

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Give Family of Man Shot by Police their Day in Court on Wrongful Death Claim

Judge Holly Thomas, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that reversed a lower court and allowed the wife and mother of a man shot by police to proceed to trial with a wrongful death claim against the police. Trump judge Mark Bennett dissented and tried to uphold the lower court. The ruling in Yearick v Leatham was issued in September 2023.



What happened in this case? 

 Lisa Yearick made an emergency call from the home that she and her husband Edward Rudhman shared in Mesa Arizona. She told the dispatcher that her husband was threatening to kill himself with a handgun. He had been battling depression for years and had recently lost his job.

When three police deputies arrived, they walked toward the house, and Rudhman was walking towards them. His gun was “dangling” from his right hand, pointed down, and not aimed at or being moved towards the police. As he continued to walk towards them, they shot him seven times in the head and the torso, without first warning him that they would shoot. He died from his wounds.

About a year later, Ms. Yearick and Leigha Huber, Rudhman’s mother, filed a lawsuit in state court for wrongful death under Arizona law and excessive use of force under federal law. The case was removed to federal district court, and the judge ruled against them without a trial, entering summary judgment in favor of the police.  They appealed to the Ninth Circuit.


How did Judge Thomas and the Ninth Circuit Majority Rule and Why is it Important?                                                  

Judge Thomas’ deciding vote was obviously important to give the victim’s wife and mother their day in court to get some justice for the police shooting of their husband and son under Arizona wrongful death law, even though the qualified immunity finding under federal law was upheld. By recognizing that police shooting of even someone with a weapon may well be “objectively unreasonable,”  the decision will hopefully lead to more police caution in such situations and a determination in future tragedies of this sort that people should have an established federal right not to be shot and killed. Even though qualified immunity was sustained, the decision sends  the clear message that state wrongful death remedies remain available in such cases. In addition, the ruling serves as another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Thomas to our federal courts.