New York City recently settled a wrongful-death claim with the family of Eric Garner for $5.9 million almost a year to the day after Garner died from the use of a chokehold by an NYPD police officer. The 43-year old Garner was being taken into custody for selling untaxed cigarettes and was unarmed at the time of his death. Garner's family filed a notice that they intended to pursue a $75 million lawsuit against the city, prompting the eventual $5.9 million settlement.
Unfortunately, large legal settlements against police officers and departments are not uncommon, and occurring more with the recent rise in tensions between police departments and the public. According to The Wall Street Journal, the ten U.S. cities with the largest police departments paid out a total of $248.7 million in settlements and court judgments in 2014. That represents almost 50% more than the $168.3 million paid out in 2010. Over that five-year period, those ten departments paid out $1.02 billion in settlements over police misconduct.
Video may be part of the reason that settlements are larger and arrived at more quickly than in the past. The Garner incident was captured on video and shown repeatedly through the media, inflaming tensions and creating a likely sympathetic jury. City officials are often in a no-win position with a trial — drag police departments and the taxpayers through a long trial and risk civil unrest in case of a victory or a massive judgment against the city in case of defeat.
The Garner settlement is just one of several multimillion dollar lawsuits to be recently settled in New York City alone. Within the last few months, David Ranta received $6.4 million settlement after being wrongly imprisoned for 23 years and the family of Jerome Murdough received a $2.25 million settlement after he died in his cell at Rikers Island.
The largest individual settlement in New York City is from 2001 in the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian-born man abused while in the custody of Brooklyn police, who received $8.75 million in the civil suit. As for group settlements, the five men wrongly imprisoned in the 1989 Central Park jogger case settled with the city for $41 million.
Large settlements are not limited to New York City. Here are some of the largest legal settlements in other cities across the U.S.
- Los Angeles – Police in Los Angeles mistakenly shot at two ladies delivering newspapers during the 2013 manhunt for Christopher Dorner. Around 100 bullets were fired at their truck, costing the city $4.2 million in a settlement, or around $42,000 per bullet.
- Chicago – Chicago may top all individual settlements with a $22.5 million settlement in the case of Christina Eilman, who was arrested during a bipolar episode at Midway Airport and then released without assistance at sundown in a high-crime neighborhood. Eilman was sexually assaulted and fell from a seventh-story window, suffering permanent brain damage along with a multitude of physical injuries.
At the same time, a $10.2 million settlement was reached with Alton Logan, who was wrongly imprisoned for 26 years through misconduct by former Police Commander Jon Burge. Burge's abuse and suppression of evidence cases have collectively cost Chicago around $60 million.
- Boston – Boston officials settled for $4.5 million in the case of Rekia Boyd, who was killed when an off-duty officer shot blindly over his shoulder into a group of men.
A second large settlement involved David Woodman, who was arrested during a 2008 celebration of the Boston Celtics NBA championship and died in police custody. His family eventually settled for $3 million.
Tensions between police departments and the public are reaching highs not seen in years, and given recent events such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston, SC, the Freddie Gray death in Baltimore, and Sandra Bland’s death in custody in Waller County , TX, the tension is not going away anytime soon. Expect the trend to continue in the short term and new records to be set for settlements.