The D.C. government paid out almost twice as much money in damage and injury awards in fiscal year 1982 as in 1981, a jump from $2.3 million to $4.1 million, according to recently compiled D.C. corporation counsel statistics.
City officials attribute the sharp rise in payments to four factors: the tendency each year for more people to sue the city; a new law that gives the city authority to settle cases for more than $10,000; the general effect of inflation; and a backlog of cases that were decided only recently.
"Every year the city is receiving more and more claims because people are more aware of lawsuits and because they think that the city can afford anything," said Deputy Corporation Counsel John Suda.
The largest out-of-court settlements last year were: $489,000 to a man who became a quadriplegic as a result of an alleged police beating; $175,000 to the family of a man who died after his car skidded in a deep puddle of water; $115,000 to a woman who claimed her leg was unnecessarily amputated at D.C. General Hospital.
The largest jury verdicts against the city included: $250,000 to a Lorton prisoner who was a repeated stabbing victim; $975,000 to a samaritan who waded across water in a tunnel to help a stranded motorist and became an invalid when he was hit by a car. He claimed the city should not have allowed the water to build up in the tunnel.
The bulk of the 1982 payout was in the form of settlements that rose about 300 percent, from barely $600,000 to $2.6 million as the result of a change in the law giving the city authority to settle lawsuits for virtually any amount of money.
Before the City Council rewrote the law last year, the corporation counsel could spend only a maximum of $10,000 to settle a case, forcing the city to go through court proceedings often resulting in costly jury verdicts.
"The increase last year was specifically designed to give us the authority to do just what we have done this year, to be able to to settle cases that otherwise would have resulted in large judgments if we were not able to settle them. There is always the potential to lose a lot more [in a jury trial]," said Suda.
Damage award money paid out by the city comes from a corporation counsel budget allotment similar to that of other city agencies -- a combination of taxpayer revenue and federal funds.
According to corporation counsel records, in 1972 the city paid a total of only $500,000. In fiscal 1982 settlements and judgments came to $4.1 million. Six hundred lawsuits were brought against the city in 1975. In 1980 there were 1,000, and in 1982 there were 1,500.
Officials say the money paid out in awards and damages is relatively small despite the fact that Washington is a combined jurisdiction -- a virtual city, state and county -- making it responsible for, among other things, its own penal system, highway department, schools (including the University of the District of Columbia) and hospital.
Other cities are not as vulnerable to lawsuits, officials say, because, unlike Washington, they separately incorporate many of their city services and thus limit their cities' exposure to lawsuits. The only separately incorporated city service in the District is Metro.
Because of Washington's unique position as a combined jurisdiction, it is difficult to measure accurately how well D.C. is doing compared with other cities. For example, Memphis last year paid out a total of only $486,283 while San Francisco paid out $6.5 million. Although each city has about the same population as Washington, according to recent census data, their responsibity for city services differ greatly.
"Hard times" is one of the answers most frequently given to the question of why cities are being sued more, according to city attorneys around the nation. Ed Stevens, a San Jose official, said, "You expect it more claims in a deep recession. You also find a larger number of nuisance claims."
"There is no question that inflation plays a role," Suda said. "By the time a civil lawsuit goes through the system, two to three years have passed and medical bills have shot up. The 'paid out' figures are the numbers usually paid in those years. In the last year we got rid of a lot of suits with a lot of judgments built into them already, or cases that had been pending for several years.
"Using the last 20 years as a guide, I think in 1984 we will have to pay out $7 million. That would fit in the way things have been going here."