Whether a police use-of-force lawsuit filed in 2018 by a Lancaster city man can proceed now hinges on an unusual question of law.

The man died in September of an unrelated cause while the case was proceeding in federal court. Now, his lawyers are asking that his child be substituted as plaintiff, even if it might delay the case as long as 20 years.

Attorneys for the city and the officer want the case dismissed. In a response filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, city attorneys wrote that Sean D. Williams’ child isn’t a proper substitute.

“Stated simply, it was (Williams) whose alleged civil rights were violated, not his minor child’s,” they wrote.

The potential 20-year delay relates to when the clock starts ticking on the statute of limitations for a minor to bring a suit, which doesn’t begin until they reach age 18. At that point, the now-adult person would have two years to file suit.

The motion filed by Williams’ lawyers doesn’t say how old the child is, referring only to a “believed minor child” that Williams had with a former girlfriend.

Allowing the suit to continue “will result in faded memories, relocated witnesses, and an enormous financial burden on Sergeant (Philip) Bernot. It will likewise have severe personal consequences on Sergeant Bernot’s personal and professional life” if the allegations are unresolved for two decades,” the city’s attorneys wrote.

Case history

Bernot used the Taser on Williams on June 28, 2018, after Williams failed to follow directions from police who were responding to a disturbance on South Prince Street near West King Street. Williams, who was unarmed and sitting on a curb, has said he was confused by conflicting commands being given by two officers.

A video of the encounter went viral in the days afterward. A week after the encounter, Williams sued the city and Bernot.

Williams’ suit claimed excessive force, failure to provide adequate medical care and racial profiling — Williams was Black.

After agreements and court rulings, the only claim that remains is that Bernot used excessive force. Bernot is being sued individually; Williams was seeking more than $75,000 from him. The city is covering Bernot’s legal costs under its labor contract with police.

Williams died on Sept. 18 at Temple University Hospital, where he had been on life support. An attorney for him said several days later that while a cause of death hadn’t been determined, Williams had suffered severe head and brain injuries and trauma.

In their court filing last month, the attorneys wrote that Williams had been murdered.

An email to one of Williams’ attorneys on Wednesday wasn’t immediately returned.

Lawyers for the city also argue that allowing the suit to continue would not be fair to Bernot and note that the suit has dragged on because of delays caused by Williams.

Those delays include Williams failing to show for his trial in Philadelphia last February. He wasn’t able to attend because he’d recently been arrested after Lancaster police said they found him high on PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, on North Queen Street.

After that, the city sought to have the excessive force claim case dismissed, arguing Williams had failed to pursue his case by missing the trial start. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin allowed the case to go forward but ruled if Williams won, he’d have to forfeit $10,000 of whatever money he might have been awarded.

The county prosecutor at the time, Craig Stedman, criticized Bernot’s actions with regard to Williams. But Bernot didn’t face charges because he was following department policy in place at the time. And after the video went viral, city leadership began evaluating community-police relations and ultimately revamped the department’s use-of-force policy.

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