By Kari Lydersen, Chicago News Cooperative
After a Chicago police officer fatally shot Beverly Thurman’s dog, Roscoe, after getting a call about a loose pit bull, Ms. Thurman filed a lawsuit alleging that the officer had acted wrongfully.
“He should have just hollered out on his bullhorn for someone to get the dog,” said Ms. Thurman, 30.
But a jury decided last week that the officer, John Gorman, and the City of Chicago should not be held liable for damages in the 2008 shooting. The city paid $50,000 to a private firm to litigate the case, even though Ms. Thurman’s lawyers said before the trial that they would have settled for less than $10,000.
Two years ago, the city would most likely have agreed to settle, whether city lawyers believed that the officer was culpable or not. But under a policy adopted in late 2009 to discourage lawsuits seeking less than $100,000, the city takes almost all such cases to court.
As in Ms. Thurman’s situation, litigating the cases often costs the city more than it would to settle them — even if the city wins. If Ms. Thurman had won, a judge could have ordered the city to pay damages and legal fees that her lawyers estimate at more than $100,000.
Even though the city stands to lose money litigating every case under $100,000, a spokeswoman for the law department said that recently compiled figures showed the strategy seemed to be saving taxpayer money by dissuading lawyers from suing the police unless they are confident of victory.
In 2010, there were 47 percent fewer lawsuits against the police than in 2009, said Jennifer Hoyle, the spokeswoman. The city still settled some lawsuits under $100,000 in 2010, for a total of $1.7 million. But under the new policy, the city took most cases under $100,000 to trial, paying private law firms $4.8 million to litigate them. By comparison, the city spent an average of $9 million in settlements each year in 2008 and 2009. Ms. Hoyle said the city saved roughly $2.5 million in taxpayer money last year because of the new policy.
“We decided to take a firmer line on these cases, to try more of them and be more aggressive,” Ms. Hoyle said. “If we settle, we’re sending the message that even if the officer acted appropriately, we’re still going to pay out money on this case.”
Ms. Hoyle said the city used a similar strategy regarding lawsuits from people who had slipped on sidewalks.
Normally, the city would have spent much more on litigation, but with law firms hurting for business because of the economic downturn, the city was able to negotiate a two-year “bulk deal” with 14 private firms to handle suits against the police for $35,000 each, plus a $15,000 bonus for winning.
Some lawyers say the policy discourages suits by citizens who have strong cases. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are typically paid only if they win a settlement or a trial, so they are more reluctant to press difficult cases if they know they will have to go to trial.
“It has forced us to be much pickier,” said one of Ms. Thurman’s lawyers, Barb Long, who thought Ms. Thurman’s case was winnable.
Though Ms. Thurman is angry that the jury decided against her, she is glad that her case went to trial.
“Even though we lost, I feel like I got some justice for my animal,” she said. “Hopefully they will be more considerate in the future before taking an animal’s life.”