From 2007 to 2009, D.C. paid more than $50 million in legal settlements

By Paul Schwartzman Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 12:11 AM

A sixth-grader switches schools because she becomes overwhelmed by chronic allergies after her principal turns the cafeteria into a spay-and-neuter clinic for hundreds of cats. Transferring is only part of her cure: Her mother files a $100,000 lawsuit against the D.C. government and wins a $7,500 settlement.

A visitor from Arizona trips and falls on a torn patch of Connecticut Avenue NW sidewalk. He needs surgery to repair his shoulder and a lawyer to sue the D.C. government for allowing the walkway to languish as a pedestrian hazard. The city settles the case for $60,000.

Every year, people file suits alleging a litany of misdeeds by the D.C. government, including age discrimination, false arrest, improperly maintaining walkways, errantly tossing trash cans and driving over pedestrians.

Although some cases make it to trial, dozens and dozens of disputes are settled before they reach a courtroom, resulting in payouts of as little as $5,500 to the family of an H.D. Woodson High School student purportedly struck by a coach and as much as $650,000 to a St. Elizabeths Hospital psychiatric patient who gouged his eyes out after the staff failed to follow a doctor's warnings to monitor him.

The patient's guardian, Janice Motley, used part of the funds to buy Frank Harris a radio so he could listen to Orioles games and a clock that announces the time. "There's just not a lot you can do for him," Motley said.

From 2007 to 2009, the District paid more than $50 million in legal settlements, according to a database of city records obtained by The Washington Post. In that period, Montgomery County - which has 972,000 residents vs. the District's 599,000 - paid $8.5 million in settlements.

But the District functions as a combination of a city and state and serves as the nation's capital, a stage for demonstrations that breed a cottage industry of lawsuits. San Francisco, which is similar in size to the District, awarded nearly $60 million in settlements arising from suits against city agencies during that same period, city officials said.

Attorneys for plaintiffs say the District spends more than needed on such settlements because it prolongs lawsuits, tying up government lawyers for months and years when an early settlement can resolve a dispute quickly and less expensively.

"Their approach is never settle anything early," said Peter Grenier, a lawyer who has handled cases against the city. "Everyone, including the D.C. taxpayer, ends up spending a lot more money because you have to get experts and you have to spend money on depositions and subpoenas, even in the most obvious and clearest of cases. I've yet to have a case with D.C. where they have settled early on, and I've never lost a case against D.C."

Guiding principles

Peter Nickles, the District's attorney general, whose staff negotiates the settlements, said that his guiding principle is to be "very tough about spending taxpayers' money" but that settlements are unavoidable in a litigious culture.

"There are more lawyers per capita in this city than any other city in the world," Nickles said. "And what do lawyers like to do?"

The list of legal settlements reached by the District is a window on costly mistakes made by the city's bureaucracy. Although numerous agencies are sued, the police department is the target of the most cases - 92 over the three-year span - and is responsible for nearly $9 million in settlements, The Post's analysis found.

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