Champaign's 6-year lawsuit settlement total close to $1 million

Champaign's 6-year lawsuit settlement total close to $1 million

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CHAMPAIGN — If the city council approves a $70,000 payout in the Kisica Seets case Tuesday, Champaign will have spent $1.035 million settling seven excessive-force complaints against police since 2010, the most in downstate Illinois.

The number of use-of-force or civil-rights complaints that led to settlements, however, is not out of line with other similar-sized cities in Illinois, according to data compiled by The News-Gazette via open-records requests.

Decatur settled eight cases in that same span, at a cost of $344,000. Peoria spent $331,900 on six cases but settled another six for $759,700, on issues ranging from an illegal search of a home to employment environment.

In addition to its four excessive-force payouts, Springfield settled five automobile-accident cases ($448,000) and another for destroying public records ($102,000).

"There are a lot of other things that people get sued about that we haven't been," said Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins.

Stavins oversees Champaign's legal department, and while the city hires outside counsel to handle lawsuits, he advises the council on whether to settle cases.

"It's a financial decision," he said, one that takes into account the cost of further litigation, as well as staff hours and the attorney fees of the other side.

In the settlement to be considered Tuesday — the third in two months stemming from an excessive-force complaint against Champaign police Officer Matt Rush — just $25,100 of the $70,000 will go directly to Seets, the plaintiff, with the rest covering her attorney fees.

That's not unusual, said Louis Meyer, an attorney who has reached multiple excessive-force settlements with Champaign, including the Dec. 1 settlement of $25,000 with William Brown, the first of the Rush-related cases.

In order to cap mounting attorney fees, a city can make an offer of judgment in which it does not admit liability. That's what it did with Seets, offering her $25,100, plus "reasonable" attorney fees.

Sometimes, this is easier for both sides because "they don't have to prove anything, they can just chose to accept it," Stavins said.

The costs of a lawsuit are more than just the price of the settlement, however, Meyer said.

In addition to paying for outside counsel, which is covered by the insurance company when the city chooses to settle, Champaign must pay its officers to be deposed, which often accumulates as overtime. City staff also spends time working on the case, when it would otherwise be conducting normal business.

Still, the city must balance those costs with what is right.

"You have to fight if it's a case with no merit," Meyer said. "You can't just settle everything or else people will be fighting stuff all the time. That's why you need a good adviser."

Stavins said it's important for the public to know that settlements are often the best course of action for both sides.

"It seems like the public automatically assumes that the police officer admits in every case that there's malfeasance, even in an automobile accident," he said. "It's hard to infer or imply that there is an admission of wrongdoing — usually, people have something in settlement that specifically contradicts that perception.

"When you have a settlement of a case, that's actually what it is — a settlement."

In addition to reaching deals with the three Rush accusers — Seets, Brown and Benjamin Mann ($225,000) — the city's four other settlements this decade were with William Hawkins ($150,001 in 2014), Gary McFarland ($50,000 in 2012), Brandon Ward ($45,000 in 2012) and the family of Kiwane Carrington ($470,000 in 2010 over a wrongful-death suit).

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andrewscheinman wrote on February 01, 2016 at 1:02 pm

The settlements are "not out of line with other similar-sized cities in Illinois."  Really?

Champaign - c. 83,000 people, 7 settlements, 1.035M

Joliet, Rockford - c. 150,000 (almost 2x bigger), 30 and 21 settlements, 1.4M and 874K

Decatur - 73,000, 8 settlements, 344K

Peoria, Springfield - c. 116,000, 6 and 4 settlements, 332K and 178K

Elgin - 110,000, 2 settlements, 550K

Normal - 54,000, 1 settlement, 14,5K

Urbana - 41,000, 0 settlements

***

So by the above the closest "similarly sized city" is Decatur, which has essentially the same number of settlements, but 1/3 the total costs.  How is that "not out of line?"

Or consider Joliet, almost twice as big as Champaign, has 30 settlements versus Champaign's 7, and yet is only about 50% more than Champaign in terms of amount (1.4M versus 1M) despite twice the population?

Or look at Elgin, 30,000 more people yet half the total spent on settlements.

***

So, sure, if the point of the article is that other cities in Illinois of much smaller population (Urbana) to much larger population (Joliet, Rockford) spend from 0 (Urbana) to about 50% more than Champaign, sure, that's completely true.

But don't make innumerate statements about the amounts being comparable.  They aren't, at least not if you use the math that I was taught in first grade.

Or am I missing something?  I recognize it's Monday, but ...

GeneralLeePeeved wrote on February 01, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Oh Andrew!  ...the problem is, you read the article as someone analyzing the numbers.....big mistake.  You should have read it as if it were written by a politician attempting to put a good spin on the story.  The part that you quoted....you have actually misquoted.   That sentence only refers to the number of complaints that required a settlement.  By that measure, and only that measure, Champaign isn't out of line.   However, if you're going to go and analyze it correctly, as you have done....the story, as written, falls apart quickly......can't be having that now, can we?

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 01, 2016 at 2:02 pm

The attitudes of the communities need to be included.  Champaign is a university town.  More attention is paid to "police crimes" which result in settlements that are cheaper than going to court.  The community jumps directly to blaming the police for excessive force due to the community attitude toward the police.  As long as the community continues with it's battle against "police crimes", and the catipulating with settlements; the problem will continue. 

Police hiring continues, but many of the best candidates are not interested in a profession that is based on public opinion.  The result is hiring officers who are sometimes not suited for their profession.  Illinois is now considering the requirement of police officers carrying their own insurance for alleged "police crimes" rather than their employer the community paying for the insurance.  That should tell law enforcement officers that "no one has your back, you are on your own". 

Lostinspace wrote on February 01, 2016 at 4:02 pm

Cost per settlement, excluding Champaign: about $52,000.

Cost per settlement, Champaign: $146,000.