Settlement reached in lawsuit filed by family of Ottawa man who died following arrest

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TORONTO — A lawsuit filed by the family of an Ottawa man who suffered a fatal heart attack during a violent encounter with police has been settled out of court, as the force and its board vowed to work on their approach to incidents involving mental health.

In a statement, the Ottawa Police Services Board and the family of Abdirahman Abdi said they have come to a "mutual agreement," putting an end to the civil action filed in 2018.

The details of the settlement are confidential and will not be released publicly, the statement said.

However, both sides agree "significant improvements" need to be made to how police respond to people experiencing mental health issues "in the immediate future," it said.

Abdi had mental health difficulties and a history of psychotic illness, and was not taking his prescribed medication at the time of his death, according to court documents.

"The Abdi family is encouraged by the board and (Ottawa police)’s stated intention to work in partnership with the community to develop and implement a new mental health response strategy to improve community safety and well-being for all residents of Ottawa, and asks the community to work co-operatively in pursuit of this goal," said the statement announcing the settlement.

"Ensuring better future outcomes will be an important legacy of Abdirahman’s life."

Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represents the Abdi family, said his clients are grateful for the "unwavering" community support they received over the last few years.

While nothing can bring them closure for the loss of their loved one, the settlement marks "another step in the bereavement process," he said.

"The family's pain is... unfortunately always going to be there," he said Tuesday.

Still, he said, "the settlement recognizes that change, and significant improvements to the police response must take place, and that the time for those changes is now."

The lawsuit sought more than a million dollars in damages for mental suffering as well as loss of guidance and care as a result of the July 24, 2016 incident that culminated in Abdi's death. It also sought $500,000 in punitive damages.

The statement of claim, which has not been tested in court, alleged Abdi's mother, sister and brother witnessed the incident and suffered "significant psychological damages" as a result.

The suit claimed the two officers involved used excessive force and didn't provide medical assistance when Abdi lost vital signs, only calling an ambulance "after a significant amount of time had passed."

It also alleged the board failed to identify systemic problems in the force that would have required policies to prevent incidents of excessive force, and that the then-chief of police failed to ensure officers were trained in mental health response and issues related to excessive force.

The settlement was announced Monday, and comes months after an Ottawa police officer -- one of the two named in the suit -- was acquitted of manslaughter and assault charges in connection with Abdi's death.

An Ontario judge ruled in October that he couldn't conclusively say the blows Abdi suffered during his arrest significantly contributed to his death, given that the 37-year-old had pre-existing health conditions and experienced "considerable exertion and stress'' even before Const. Daniel Montsion arrived at the scene.

Ontario Court Justice Robert Kelly said in his ruling that he was also not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Montsion used excessive force, or that the officer acted with a wanton disregard for Abdi's life or safety.

The burden of proof is much higher for criminal case than civil lawsuit, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt rather than a balance of probabilities.

During the criminal trial, court heard the incident took place shortly after police were called to a coffee shop in response to reports of a man causing a disturbance.

By the time an officer arrived, Abdi had been kicked out of the coffee shop and was acting violently and groping women, court heard.

Abdi was pepper sprayed and ran away, but the officer caught up with him outside his apartment building, with Montsion arriving shortly afterwards, court heard. A police dispatcher had described Abdi as having potential mental health issues.

As the confrontation continued, Montsion delivered several punches, and Abdi -- who was unarmed -- was brought to the ground, Kelly said in his verdict.

Montsion then administered three blows to Abdi's thighs, followed by three to his upper body, two of which landed on his head, the judge said.

Abdi lost vital signs during the incident and died in hospital the next day.

His death spurred a number of protests against systemic racism and abuse of police powers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press