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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.

Some cases result in large settlements, such as the $1.2 million awarded to a couple whose two children were killed by a driver fleeing from a police cruiser on Florida Avenue NE. Other cases end in relatively small payouts yet still suggest confounding bureaucratic lapses, such as the family that happened to make an inquiry about a relative who was a prisoner in the D.C. jail and thereby learned that he had died of lung cancer four months earlier and had been cremated without notice to the relatives. Four family members split $11,500.

Or there was Brian Sutherland, a bicyclist who was accidentally struck by a trash can that a sanitation worker threw as the cyclist rode past 22nd and P streets NW. Sutherland fell off the bike and suffered injuries to "all parts of his body, some of which were permanent, especially to his right elbow and right little finger," according to his claim. Sutherland, who also said he endured "anxiety" and "anguish," sued for $600,000. He got $25,000 from the city.

Sutherland declined to comment on his settlement, a reticence expressed by many plaintiffs, who said they don't want to publicize their cases.

Gerald Goz, the Arizona tourist who won $60,000 after tripping and falling at Connecticut Avenue and Bancroft Place, also declined to comment, saying: "I don't want to discuss it, period. Look it up in the court records. If you call again, I'll consider it harassment."

Goz's attorney, Judy Feinberg, said "slip and fall" cases are difficult to win because a plaintiff must prove that the city could have prevented the injury. In Goz's case, Feinberg said, she was able to show that the defective sidewalk had existed for years and that D.C. police officers and utility workers could and should have reported the problem.

"I don't take most of these kinds of cases, and I take them only if I feel like I'm going to win," she said, adding that Goz was "very happy" with the settlement, which covered his medical needs, lost wages and her fee.

Not all "slip and fall" settlements are so generous. David Steiner, a Justice Department attorney, filed a six-figure lawsuit after ripping up his knee by falling twice within weeks, once outside the U Street Metro station and again outside Union Station. He received a $4,500 settlement, not nearly enough, he said, to compensate him for several knee operations.

His injuries forced him to give up two passions, jogging and ballroom dancing. "I thought I'd get better enough, but it never happened," Steiner said. "I definitely didn't get what I wanted."

Robert Lederman, an artist and activist, drew publicity in the 1990s by challenging then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's crackdown on sidewalk artists. In 1997, he stood outside the U.S. Capitol handing out leaflets, prompting police to warn that they would arrest him if he did not stop.

"If you arrest me, I will sue and I'm going to win," he recalled telling officers. He was right. A decade later, he pocketed a $10,000 settlement, which he said he uses to support his family.

"What am I going to do, hire hookers and get a bag of heroin?" Lederman asked. "It's not like I won a million dollars."

Identifying behaviors

The District sets aside about $20 million annually to pay for settlements and judgments. D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), whose committee oversees the attorney general's office, said the constancy of the payouts suggests that the city's government is failing to "identify the behaviors in an agency that generate these lawsuits and make the agency change their behavior."

"We ought to be reducing the number of mistakes we make," Mendelson said.

Once those mistakes are clear, plaintiffs' attorneys say, the District should resolve disputes and move on. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney for anti-World Bank demonstrators arrested at Pershing Park in 2002, said the District took eight years to settle a case in which, she alleges, police had brazenly violated protesters' rights by hogtying and detaining them for hours, in some cases without allowing them to use the bathroom.

"They engage in scorched-earth litigation tactics to get plaintiffs to take toothless settlements," Verheyden-Hilliard said. "If they violate civil rights, they need to own up to it, but they want a war of attrition."

Nickles said the District is not seeking "to grind anyone down. We have a lot of cases that are frivolous. We're not going to sit there and pay $5 [million] and $10 million to settle them."

The District took nearly four years to settle the $1.5 million lawsuit Ryan Shelton filed after a police officer who was chasing him allegedly ran over him with a patrol car. Shelton, who was not arrested, suffered "abrasions, a dislocated hip, a fractured femur and pelvis, and a lacerated liver, which required surgery," according to his complaint.

He was awarded $125,000, an amount his mother, Tracey, said has done little to erase the memory of the incident. "He's bitter about it," she said. "It's something he needs to get help with psychologically. That's a hurting thing."

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