By FRED SHUSTER
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The parents of a young man mistakenly shot to death by an undercover federal agent in a Studio City parking lot were awarded damages of $3 million today by a judge who called the case a tragedy arising from "a freakish series of events."
Carol Champommier and Eric Avery Feldman brought the wrongful death lawsuit two years ago against the U.S. government, seeking between $8 and $10 million in damages for the loss of their 18-year-old son.
The government argued during a bench trial in Los Angeles federal court earlier this year that the June 24, 2010, shooting was justified because Zachary Champommier had tried to run down an officer with his mother's Toyota.
In announcing his ruling for the plaintiffs before a courtroom packed with family and friends of the deceased, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald said the young man posed no threat to the officers, the use of deadly force was not justified, and the officers should have identified themselves before firing.
"This is a terrible tragedy (that) arose from a freakish series of events," the judge said. "The shooting was, in fact, a mistake."
Federal prosecutors, though, are considering an appeal, according to U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Thom Mrozek.
"The ruling does not change our position that Champommier struck a Los Angeles (County) Sheriff's Department deputy with his car," and the federal agent who fired "reasonably used deadly force to deal with the dangerous situation," Mrozek said.
According to the suit, Champommier was shot as he drove slowly away from what he thought were strangers attacking an acquaintance in a parking lot in the 12100 block of Ventura Boulevard -- behind the Chipotle eatery near the Vons market at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Laurel Canyon -- around 9:30 p.m.
The strangers were a group of federal, state and local law enforcement officers in plainclothes and unmarked cars gathered in the parking lot to debrief after serving a search warrant at a nearby home, court records show.
Champommier was shot by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent after he accidentally struck sheriff's deputy Mark Brewster, who was part of the task force.
When the shots were fired, the deputy -- who was not harmed -- was either in the process of getting his feet on the ground or sliding off the car, Fitzgerald said.
"There really was no danger to Deputy Brewster ... or any officers that were on the lot," the judge said, adding that if the officers had identified themselves, Champommier would have stopped the car and followed instructions.
He was "legitimately fearful for his life" and "unaware these were law enforcement officers" when he attempted to drive away, Fitzgerald said.
His mother, who had custody, was awarded $2 million in damages and about $6,000 for burial expenses. The judge awarded $1 million to Feldman.
"I miss my son every single day," his mother said outside court. "It's not the dollar amount -- an officer cannot use deadly force just because he imagines a threat."
Her son, who had graduated with honors from Granada Hills Charter High School two weeks before he was killed, "lost his life for no good reason," she said.
In their complaint, the parents alleged poor training, reckless conduct and an attempt by members of the task force to "cover up" misconduct by lying and tampering with evidence during the investigation.
Fitzgerald, however, said there was no cover-up and declined recovery on the negligence allegations.
Carol Champommier, a Porter Ranch resident, said her son had driven to the parking lot to meet a young man he'd chatted with online. But when he arrived, he saw the acquaintance scuffling with what appeared to be a group of rough-looking middle-aged men, she said.
The law enforcement officials had apparently noticed the victim's friend peering into parked cars looking for Zac and presumed he was a thief, Champommier attorney Cara Eisenberg said.
According to court papers, the men were part of a multi-jurisdictional task force of sheriff's deputies, Los Angeles police officers and DEA agents, dressed in leather jackets and T-shirts. They'd just completed a narcotics raid and were "debriefing" in the lot, with confiscated weapons and cash still in their unmarked cars, according to court documents.
Investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office concluded that the officers fired in self-defense and declined to recommend prosecution, court papers show.