The People v. Minneapolis

A crack in the sidewalk, a cop's slippery sole,and other lawsuits just waiting to happen

The big scene at the July 30 meeting of the Minneapolis City Council revolved around a proposed ban on cigarette machines around town. The measure ended up passing on a 13-0 vote, but only after an hour's worth of very unanimous bickering spurred on by a chorus of placard-waving, antismoking activists who had packed the chambers. Compared to that spirited debate, everything else on the agenda--some 77 items in all--was run through with perfunctory efficiency. Bonds were issued, moneys for neighborhood spending allocated, construction bids accepted, permit variations granted. Oh, and the council also agreed to spend the public's money settling three lawsuits against the city--to the tune of $131,655.45.

That, too, was business as usual. The number of cases and the dollar amounts vary, but hardly a meeting passes without a few such out-of-court settlements being approved, per recommendation of the Office of the City Attorney. At a get-together two weeks prior, the council had approved paying out $164,000 to settle three other cases. Just last week the quorum gave the green light to four settlements totaling $68,649.48.

The Minneapolis City Council has authorized the spending of roughly $2.8 million for settlements, attorneys' fees, and other costs, in 47 separate lawsuits, claims, and other legal cases from January 1 through its meeting last Friday. (That amount doesn't include the pocket-change claims that never even make it to the city attorney's desk.)

The $2.8 million figure is well ahead of the pace of recent years, which has actually shown the city's liability costs declining. According to figures provided by the city attorney's office, the total liability tab in 1998 came to just over $3.3 million for claims, litigation settlements, workers' compensation settlements, judgments, attorneys' fees ordered by the court, and outside attorney contracts. That continued a downward trend: In 1996 costs were close to $3.9 million, and in 1997 nearly $3.6 million. Those figures were down substantially from costs of $5.6 million in 1995, when the city was getting socked with a spate of excessive-force claims against its police officers.

This year's numbers are up from those in 1996-1998 because of settlements in two specific police-related cases. In February the city paid $300,000 each to the families of Jeffrey Carlson and Steven Winkel, who were killed in November 1998 when a squad car without its lights or siren on sped through a residential intersection and totaled their pickup truck. In April the council approved a total of $750,000 for victims of the December 1998 crash at the annual Holidazzle parade in which a police van plowed into a crowd of spectators, killing two and injuring several others.

Those incidents alone account for nearly half of all 1999 payouts. The decisions were atypical: Local officials elected to pay the maximum amounts they could be held liable for, rather than waste expensive time arguing that the city wasn't at fault. Under Minnesota law, the most a municipality can be required to pay is $300,000 for a single case, and $750,000 for "any number of claims arising out of a single occurrence." (Those limits go out the window in federal civil-rights cases against the city, however; damages in those have exceeded the state caps.)

Both the Carlson-Winkel collision and the Holidazzle crash were big news, detailed in nightly newscasts and in daily papers. Most of the cases that wind up costing the city money don't garner much media coverage. The range of lawsuits runs the gamut from the banal to the comic to the tragic: You'll see cases in which a citizen slipped and fell on a public sidewalk, a snowplow or other city vehicle collided with a car, police clobbered suspects with flashlights, and the city's own workers claimed mistreatment on the job.

Of these cases, those involving the Minneapolis Police Department are still the most costly. According to an overview put together earlier this year at the behest of Police Chief Robert Olson, between July 1, 1996 and November 30, 1997, the city attorney's office handled 63 claims against the MPD. Twenty-five of them (about 40 percent) were settled out of court. Of the 38 that were litigated, the city won nearly 90 percent. Between December 1, 1997 and November 24, 1998, the office disposed of another 69 claims against the police department, 29 of which were settled and 40 of which were litigated (the city prevailed in all but 3, and won either summary judgment or dismissal in 20).

According to Deputy City Attorney Michael Norton, at any given time there are, on average, 1,000 open lawsuits and claims against the city. The bulk of these are handled by nine assistant city attorneys. The city attorney's office is allowed by law to settle any claim for less than $1,000 without bringing the matter before the city council, and is generally able to make settlement offers of up to $10,000 without prior council discussion.

The ability to fight city hall in court is a fairly modern concept. Once upon a time, cities and other government bodies in the U.S. could claim "sovereign immunity" from such actions, a concept handed down from English common law which sprung from the belief that "the king can do no wrong." In this state, that all changed after a landmark Minnesota Supreme Court decision in 1962.

Plaintiffs and their attorneys can thank angry parent Charles Spanel, who sued the Mounds View School District over injuries his five-year-old son received from a defective slide in a kindergarten classroom. In its ruling, the state's highest court declared that "sovereign immunity is an unjust and archaic doctrine....The court overrules immunity as a defense available to school districts, municipal corporations, and other subdivisions of government," thereby clearing the way for Minnesotans to sue their local governing bodies.

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