EUGENE, Ore. (KTVZ) – After several days of testimony, a federal jury on Monday awarded fired Deschutes County sheriff’s deputy Eric Kozowski more than $1 million in his lawsuit against Sheriff Shane Nelson and the county, in which he alleged retaliation by Nelson, who defeated him in the 2016 election and fired him over a year later.
The lawsuit, filed in February 2018, sought $3.4 million in economic damages and non-economic and punitive damages to be determined at trial. Kozowski accused the county and sheriff of actions that were “malicious and demonstrating an intentional, wanton and/or reckless indifference to (Kozowski’s) First Amendment rights.”
The jury also ruled that Kozowski's attorneys proved “that his speech on a matter of public concern was a substantial or motivating factor” for Nelson’s dismissal, as was his run for office.
The jury found that Nelson violated a state law barring retaliation by a public employer and “retaliated against him in response to his complaints of undue influence and/or violations of law and policy.”
However, the jury cleared the county of a similar charge under the state’s “whistle-blower” statute. And it rejected claims that sheriff’s Capt. Paul Garrison, also named as a defendant, had retaliated against Kozowski.
The jury awarded Kozowski $1,062,000 in economic damages, but no non-economic damages. And that Nelson should pay $10,000 in punitive damages.
The sheriff and county issued the following statement after the verdict:
"Sheriff Shane Nelson and Deschutes County thank the jury for their service.
"While we are disappointed in the verdict, we respect the jury process. We will be reviewing the outcome in the near future for a potential appeal.
"The County’s Risk Management fund will pay for economic damages and legal fees up to $1 million. The County’s excess insurance company will pay for economic damages and legal fees in excess of $1 million."