Va. Supreme Court reverses decision to award $1 million to family of man killed by VBPD

By Brian Reese & Brett Hall, WAVY-TV 10 – 1/26/2023

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Supreme Court has reversed a decision to award $1 million to the estate of Jeffrey Tyree, the man fatally shot by a Virginia Beach police officer in 2019.

It was a 4-3 vote, with Chief Justice Bernard Goodwyn, Justice Wesley G. Russell Jr. and Justice Thomas Mann in dissent. The decision means the jury’s $1 million award to the estate is effectively tossed out.

“We believe that the trial judge and jury got it right. We are deeply disappointed in the majority opinion and are considering a petition for hearing,” said Kevin Martingayle, the attorney for the Tyree estate, in response to the high court’s decision.

The City of Virginia Beach also released a statement on Thursday, saying they were “gratified” with the decision.

“The City and Detective Colas are gratified the Supreme Court of Virginia recognized that Detective Colas was justified in shooting Mr. Tyree in defense of Officer Tuft-Williams.”

Tyree’s family said the 57-year-old was experiencing a mental health crisis when police were called to his mother’s home in the the Arrowhead neighborhood, off Newtown Road, in February 2019. The family was trying to get him to consent to mental health treatment.

After several hours of negotiations, police said that Tyree, who’d been carrying a military-style knife, was tackled by an officer named Tuft-Williams. As Tuft-Williams rolled away after the tackle, police said Tyree picked the knife back up and approached Tuft-Williams in a “threatening manner.” That’s when Colas fired the single fatal shot.

Colas was eventually found to be justified in the shooting by Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle, after a review of body camera evidence from the encounter.

Tyree’s family then sued for $15 million in civil court, saying what they really wanted was accountability. Colas was eventually found liable for battery by the jury and the family was awarded $1 million in damages. Colas then appealed, and the case reached the Virginia Supreme Court.

In writing the majority opinion for the Virginia Supreme Court in Thursday’s decision, Justice Stephen McCullough said that the estate for Tyree failed to provide evidence that contradicted VBPD officer Bradley Colas’ claim that he was acting in defense of another officer. The appeal came after Colas tried and failed in asking a lower court to strike the plaintiff’s evidence and to set aside the verdict.

The high court majority cited precedent with what’s called the adverse witness rule in their reasoning. The arcane rule says when a party calls an opposing witness, that witnesses’ testimony is “binding” on the calling party if that testimony isn’t contradicted by other evidence.

“Every human being is a creature of eternal moment and infinite worth,” McCullough wrote. “Tyree’s death constitutes an irreparable loss to his family and friends. Although the outcome was tragic, Detective Colas’ decision to fire his weapon, on these specific facts, constituted defense of another as a matter of law … nothing in this testimony was inherently incredible, nor was it contradicted by other evidence.”

In writing for the dissenting justices, Justice Wesley Russell Jr. said in fact there was contradicting evidence, such other officers not corroborating Colas’ underlying claim that Tyree was moving the knife toward one of the officers when Colas fired. Russell also says the majority left out key facts such as that Tyree was disabled and would normally required a cane or walker, and wouldn’t have been able to move quickly after he’d just been tackled.

“Viewed under the appropriate standard, the video, photographic, and testimonial evidence established that Tyree possessed the knife and held it aloft after being tackled by surprise, but nothing more,” Russell wrote.

The dissent said that a reasonable jury could have sided with Colas’ testimony, but they didn’t in this case, and the circuit court didn’t err in allowing evidence.

“The Supreme Court often repeats the admonition that reviewing courts must accept the evidence in the light most favorable to the party who got the jury verdict,” longtime Virginia lawyer L. Steven Emmert wrote in an analysis of the case. “The dissent’s primary critique here is that the majority turns its back on that ancient principle, essentially reengineering the facts in favor of the detective.”