The Liability Plague

With the money they lose to lawsuits law enforcement agencies could hire more officers, field better equipment, and offer more comprehensive training.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

David Griffith (Photo: Kelly Bracken)David Griffith (Photo: Kelly Bracken)

Last month a Chicago-area criminal was sentenced to nine years in prison for shooting a former member of his gang. This will be his second term in prison. His first experience with the penal system began when he was 13 years old.

In 1993 Thaddeus Jimenez, who was a "peewee" member of a gang called the Simon City Royals, was convicted and sentenced to 45 years for killing a 19-year-old who was in a rival gang. He served only 16 years because it was proven that he had been wrongly convicted. Another man even confessed to the crime.

Upon his release Jimenez sued for the loss of 16 years of freedom. He won the lawsuit. So in 2012 the city of Chicago was ordered to pay him $25 million. His lawyers reportedly took half of the judgment. Jimenez was left with $12.5 million.

Imagine what you could do with $12.5 million. You could play with some of it, invest some of it, put some in safe savings, and you, your children, and maybe even your grandchildren, would probably never have to worry about money again.

But that's not what Jimenez did. He reportedly used the money to further his criminal ambitions.

Authorities say the reason he shot that man in 2015 was the man refused to rejoin the Simon City Royals. The victim had left the "life," but Jimenez was rebuilding the gang with himself as the leader and wasn't willing to take "no" for an answer. Prosecutors say Jimenez used the judgment he was awarded for his wrongful conviction to pay $50,000 recruiting bonuses to gangbangers who would join his crew. He even bought them guns and cars. That means the taxpayers of the city of Chicago actually paid this guy money so he could make area crime even worse.

Tax money should be going for things like public safety, better roads, and services for people who need them. It shouldn't be used for building criminal empires. Nor should it be used to make plaintiffs' attorneys rich.

But plaintiffs' attorneys are getting rich. They have unleashed a never-ending plague of contingency-fee lawsuits against law enforcement and government agencies that promise them up to and sometimes more than 40% of any award they win for their clients.

People should be able to sue for compensation when they have been legitimately damaged. But the awards being paid to settle some lawsuits are out of control, and we need to do something about them.

According to Governing, a publication for state and local government workers, New York City paid out $720 million in claims and judgments in fiscal year 2016. In the same article, Governing reported that the 24 largest cities in the U.S. paid out more than $1.2 billion over the same period.

Many of the claims against those cities were reaally against law enforcement, which is tragic because they likely could have been prevented if the agencies involved had been given that money in the first place. With more money the agencies could have hired more officers, fielded better equipment, and offered more comprehensive training.

Governing's report says this situation is getting worse. And the reason is because plaintiffs' attorneys are getting very creative and "constantly coming up with new theories of litigation and new ways to sue."

So I believe it's time for taxpayers and government officials to band together and get creative to fight this trend. Here's my admittedly far-fetched solution.

We need reasonable liability limits. There's no way Thaddeus Jimenez should have been paid $25 million for his wrongful conviction. He deserved a bunch of money, but that's insane. Such precedent-setting awards spur higher and higher judgments in liability cases.

Once liability is limited, government entities should refuse to settle any suit. The "bend over" legal strategy practiced by most cities has to end.

Finally, if a person who has been awarded a judgment or settlement against a government entity commits a violent crime, that should mean automatic forfeit of the award or anything purchased with it.

Of course, any attempt to restrict liability and awards would also trigger political action by trial lawyers and probably a bunch of lawsuits supported by the ACLU. So it's likely impossible to do anything to rein in the settlements and judgments that rob citizens of services and you of resources. But I can dream. Can't I?

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