The $75 million mystery 

In early April, a U.S. District Court docket report appeared in the case of Stephen J. Nelson, the plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit against Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Lake County Sheriff Bill Barron. The document listed $75 million as the grand total for damages sought.

The eye-bulging demand sum naturally raised questions as to what exactly happened in 2005 when the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department started investigating Nelson—a former deputy of McMeekin’s—and eventually charged him with two crimes, a rape and a sexual assault.

The charges were ultimately dismissed and Nelson was cleared—but not before he spent more than 100 days in jail. Nelson’s lawsuit alleges that he was the subject of malicious prosecution and suffered assault and battery and unconstitutional treatment during his incarceration in Missoula and Lake County lockups.

In the realm of civil litigation, damage prayers speak to the scale of the alleged injustice. And this one, apparently, had a lot to say.

“I have no idea where that number came from,” responded Terry Schaplow, Nelson’s attorney in the federal suit, when questioned about the $75 million figure. “As a matter of practice, I never put a number on anything.”

Wherever it came from, the super-sized number impacted local media coverage of the case. It, not surprisingly, was prominently mentioned in both an Associated Press article and a front-page story in the Missoulian. Still, not one of the three lawyers involved in the case—neither Schaplow, McMeekin’s attorney Charles McNeil, nor Barron’s attorney Mikel Moore—would admit to entering the number.

For Nelson, who claims to have suffered publicity problems during his 14-month legal ordeal, the damage claim looked none too flattering, as it suggested either greed or irrationality. “Obviously, it’s of no benefit to the plaintiff,” Schaplow said of the lofty amount.

For a federal civil rights suit against a sheriff’s department, awards of even a few million dollars are noteworthy. In terms of civil suits in general, even high-profile cases like the wrongful death suit against O.J. Simpson brought in a $33.5 million judgment, less than half of what Nelson appeared to be hoping for.

Did the defense plant the figure, hoping to make Nelson look bad? That, too, turned out not to be the case.

The trail went cold until April 22, when Nicole Stevens, a clerk at Missoula’s federal courthouse, called the Independent with an unexpected new clue about the number.

“It came from the cover sheet that was filed when the case was transferred to federal court,” she said.

The cover sheet was attached to a filing by Moore, Barron’s attorney, who says he motioned the state court to move the matter to federal court in order to avoid jurisdictional conflicts. Moore’s filing, however, simply filled in a blank. In the spot that asked for the damages prayer, he wrote in the legal minimum a jury could award in a case like this—$75,000.

The clerk’s office, it turned out, mistakenly added the three extra zeros.
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