The Cost of Doing Business
The District government, you should know, is getting better.
The Washington Post recently teamed up with a Georgetown University researcher to crunch city data. They found that the District has “vastly improved its delivery of basic services over the past decade” and continues to do so. For scandal-weary city politicians, especially Mayor Vince Gray, that story has been like manna from heaven; he’s still talking about it weeks later.
But for all the chatter of more reliable trash collection and fewer potholes, city government still doesn’t always work so well. Take, for instance, the tale of Nicholas Anders, who says he was crossing K Street NW in the middle of the night a few years ago when he was hit by a police car. Anders was knocked unconscious for about 15 minutes before he came to. The cops took Anders to his mom’s house. They told her Anders had slipped off the curb and fallen asleep in the middle of the road, where he was “snoring.” Before leaving, they wrote Anders a ticket for “walking in the roadway.”
The next day, Anders’ mom took her son to the emergency room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with a skull fracture, blood on the brain, and a broken jaw.
That, at least, is Anders’ story. He sued the District in 2009 for $20 million, alleging that the police hit him with their cruiser, covered up what happened, and dropped him off at his mom’s house without getting him emergency medical treatment. (His lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.) The city initially fought the lawsuit, saying Anders’ injuries were due to “own willful conduct and/or contributory negligence.” But late last year, right before the case went to trial, the city agreed to pay Anders $250,000 without admitting any fault.
The Anders case is one of about 150 settlements the city entered into last fiscal year, in which the District paid out more than $33 million in settlements and judgments, according to a list provided to Washington City Paper by the Office of the Attorney General. In total, D.C. has spent more than $150 million in settlements and judgments in the last five years.
It’s important to note that the District settles for a number of reasons, fault not necessarily being one of them. Most cities regularly settle civil lawsuits to avoid costly trials and potently costlier jury awards. “We have made clear that we are willing to consider settlement offers,” says Ariel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to Attorney General Irv Nathan. The city will only settle after a thorough review of each individual case, he says, and the OAG is “always focusing on the lodestar question of what is in the best interest of the District of Columbia.” The District’s Office of Risk Management manages the settlement and judgment fund.
The list of recent settlements includes plenty that are common in today’s courts, like the $127,500 paid to a woman who sustained unnamed injuries because of a broken sidewalk, or the $390,000 payout to a disability-advocacy group because the city allowed convenience stores that aren’t wheelchair-accessible to sell D.C. Lottery tickets. But a look at some of the city’s more recent settlements also shows, despite recent improvements, dysfunction remains—and that your tax dollars probably could have been put to more productive use.
Take the case of Rafael Pearson, who the city placed into foster care as a newborn in 2005. An abusive foster mom inflicted massive brain damage on the child. The abuse was so bad, according to the Post, that doctors didn’t expect Pearson to live. He survived, but requires round-the-clock care. The city agreed to pay a $10 million settlement to the boy’s grandmother in November 2010 to cover his medical care.
Other settlements highlight the District’s often dysfunctional contracting process. For instance, Teach For America, the nonprofit that puts fresh-faced college graduates into low-income classrooms (and whose alumni include former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and current chancellor Kaya Henderson) sued the city for breach of contract after the District didn’t pay $200,000 for 49 special ed teachers the group provided. In court records, Teach for America says the school system and the attorney general’s office insisted they needed to sue in order to get paid. The city settled with Teach for America for the full amount last fall. The settlement list shows that two other school-related nonprofits also had to sue to get paid what they said they were owed. The city settled for the exact amount they asked for.
Given the rough nature of police work, it’s not surprising that many settlements involve false-arrest or excessive-force cases. But there’s also evidence that mistakes by top police brass have been costly. The well-documented, boneheaded decision of Metropolitan Police Department officials to indiscriminately arrest and hogtie 400 protesters in Pershing Park in 2002 wound up costing the city $22 million. Less noticed was the $910,000 settlement the District agreed to in September over Chief Cathy Lanier’s ill-advised military-style roadblocks in Trinidad. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the massive payouts may have led to a less constitutionally-challenged police department. MPD has been restrained with the current Occupy D.C. protesters, compared with the more aggressive policing in other cities.
But over at the D.C. Jail, it appears there’s little learning going on. The city settled at least six cases involving inmates being stabbed by other inmates. The cases mostly follow a familiar pattern: The alleged victims are attacked in their cells because guards aren’t following standard procedures for keeping doors locked.
“That’s been a common problem, and it’s just never been corrected,” says Geoffrey Allen, a trial attorney who has represented stabbed inmates. Allen says the problem’s been going on for years and he still gets a couple of referrals every month from inmates in similar situations. “It’s unbelievable.”
The payouts from these cases are small compared to other settlements the city pays. The lowest was for $4,000; the highest was for more than $60,000 for inmate who was stabbed in the face and lost an eye.
A DOC spokeswoman says the new acting director “has moved forward aggressively with security enhancements aimed at reducing/eliminating the level of contraband,” which LL assumes includes stabbing instruments, in the jail.
Or if that doesn’t work, they could always settle.
Graphic by Brooke Hatfield
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