by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
If suddenly, you found yourself in charge of running the City of Key West, you would learn very quickly that a significant cost of doing business is dealing with lawsuits against the City– and, of course, the cost of staffing a Legal Department. Over the years, we here at The Blue Paper have periodically published stories about lawsuits against the City and, subsequently, the payouts to the plaintiffs in these cases. Of course, the most interesting cases are those in which a cop is accused of beating the crap out of somebody just for the fun of it, or for just making up reasons to arrest and jail somebody– or, even, actually killing a man suspected of violating a traffic law– or tasering a man without warning and paralyzing him, possibly for life. But the City is also sued for a lot of other reasons than police behavior. The City is often sued by people who allege that they have been damaged in some way by City employees other than cops. Sometimes, the city is sued by the City’s own employees for wrongful firing or discrimination. And, of course, the City is frequently sued by people who slip and fall on city property.
According to numbers provided by the Legal Department for the past five years. the City has paid out an average of $357,300 per year to settle 43 lawsuits— a total of almost $1.8 million. The biggest payouts came over the past two years– $451,359 in 2014 and $983,250 in 2015. When the City settles a lawsuit, however, a large percentage of the damages are paid by the City’s insurance company. And, based on the above numbers, the City appears to be getting a real deal as far as the annual insurance premium is concerned. The premium the City paid for the current fiscal year is only $201,211. To show the scope of the various lawsuits against the City, here are a few of the settlements made over the past five years. Note that is is not unusual for cases to stretch out for years– sometimes many years– before settlement.
THE FAMILY OF CHARLES EIMERS– $900,000. This was the largest financial settlement over the past five years. Eimers, a 61-year-old tourist from Michigan, allegedly left the scene of a traffic stop on North Roosevelt Boulevard. When the cops found his car at the south end of Duval Street, they pulled their guns, ordered him out of the car, forced him to the ground, piled on top of him– and pushed his face into the sand and held it there– until he was dead. One of the cops who was on Eimers’ back, Officer Gary Lee Lovette, was later inadvertently recorded saying, “We just killed a man.” Although agreeing to settle with Eimers’ family for almost a million dollars, no one in City government– including the Police Department– felt that it might be appropriate to apologize to the family. Eimers was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2013. The lawsuit was settled in February 2015.
MATTHEW KLOSOWSKI– $287, 500. After four years as a Key West cop, Matt Klosowski resigned from the force in March 2008 and sued the City, alleging that he suffered harassment and retaliation by police management for refusing to destroy video evidence that may have potentially incriminated a fellow officer. City Attorney Shawn Smith recommended settlement to the City Commission, arguing that taking the case to a jury could result in a verdict as much as $600,000. The case was settled in September 2014.
JIM YOUNG– $102,000. Back in 2006, Jim Young was a Code Compliance officer with the City of Key West– when he was abruptly fired by then-City Manager Julio Avael. Young’s “crime” was, apparently, that he treated all alleged code violators the same– even if they were related to a City Commissioner or if they were represented by powerful and well-connected lawyers. After Young had red-tagged a project owned by the son of then-City Commissioner Harry Bethel, Bethel stood up at a Commission meeting and compared young’s code enforcement operation to the Nazi gestapo. When Young, an ex-cop, used sophisticated undercover sting techniques to catch prominent local realtors systematically violating the City’s transient rental laws, their friends on the City Commission demanded that such “unfair” practices be discontinued. When Young uncovered serious building violations at the Galleon Resort, Michael Halpern– the resort’s powerful and well-connected lawyer– called for Young to be fired. Avael complied. Young responded by suing the City. The City settled the lawsuit in in September 2014. By this time, Avael had been kicked out of City Hall and there was a new City Commission and a new City Manager. Young was reinstated– as head of Code Compliance.
KIA SCOTT– $100,000. In September 2011, Kia Scott was a security custodian at the community pool when she was fired for allegedly not showing up for work. She argued that she was fired because she was pregnant. There was apparently enough evidence of sloppy management to support Scott’s argument, so the City’s attorney recommended to the City Commissioners that they settle the case, rather than going to court and risk a larger verdict. The case was settled in December 2014.
In some cases, the City has to pay out money to compensate citizens for reckless driving by City employees.
JESSICA BURKE– $40,000. On the morning of December 31,2012, Jessica Burke, a 25-year-old tourist from Sarasota, riding her rented scooter on Duval Street, was stopped at the traffic light at Angela Street. Unfortunately for Ms. Burke, Key West Parking Enforcement Officer Joseph Auguste, 47, was also driving his city car on Duval Street, approaching the light on Angela. He did not stop, however. He ran into the back of Burke’s scooter. According to the police report, Burke was thrown from her scooter and, as Auguste’s vehicle continued to move forward, the car’s front bumper hit Burke’s head. When police officers and paramedics arrived, they found Burke’s head pinned between the bumper of Auguste’s car and the bumper of a pickup truck that had been stopped in front of Burke. She recovered– but how lucky was Auguste that her skull was not crushed? This case was settled in March 2012.
MARK LEACH– $15,000. On February 28, 2011, Mark Christopher Leach was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk on South Roosevelt Boulevard. Police Officer Gary Celcer turned his police cruiser off South Roosevelt into Coconut Mallory Resort– right in front of the oncoming Leach. His bicycle collided with the patrol car, throwing Leach to the ground. Celcer was at fault. This case was settled in December 2013.
STATE FARM INSURANCE– $12,000. As you may know, Key West police officers are allowed to drive their patrol cars home– even if they live up the Keys. On December 19, 2007, Police Officer Robert Allen’s patrol car collided with another vehicle on US 1 at MM11, causing thousands of dollars in damages to both vehicles. Allen was at fault. The owner of the other vehicle was covered by his insurance company, and the insurance company then sued the City. That case was settled in August 2012.
Although not as interesting or costly as lawsuits go, claims alleging injury caused by poor maintenance of streets and sidewalks represent almost half of the number of the settlements paid out by the City over the past five years. In some cases, some people have sued more than once and won more than once.
MYRLENE MILLIKEN– $45,500. Ms. Milliken sued the City, claiming that she was injured in June 2009 after falling on Duval Street. She alleged that a tree had been planted on the sidewalk without protective grating and that the dirt around the tree was uneven. Her lawsuit noted that city crews had filled in around the tree with cement the day after her injury occurred. Her case was settled in June 2013.
ROSANNE WOODRUFF– $19,500 and $30,000. Ms. Woodruff, 65, sued the City, claiming that she was injured in June 2008 after stepping into a pothole. That case was settled for $19,500 in January 2011. A few years later, Ms. Woodruff sued the City again, claiming that she was injured in February 2012 after tripping over a piece of broken sidewalk. That case was settled in July 2015 for $30,000.
Of course, the City of Key West does not lose all the lawsuits filed against it. Many of those lawsuits are judged to lack merit and are thrown out of court– or they are won in court by staff lawyers on the payroll of the Legal Department or outside counsel. In many cases, that outside counsel is Ft. Lauderdale Attorney Michael Burke. Burke has billed the City more than $500,000 over the past three years. We asked City Attorney Shawn Smith why Burke gets so much of the City’s legal business, rather than using local attorneys. “I took a hard look at this when I became City Attorney,” Smith said. “Burke is a specialist in municipal law and, frankly, he often bills far less than the going per-hour rate.”
But Burke doesn’t win them all. Excuse me if I refer to my own case– Cooper vs Dillon– back in 2002- 2005. You may recall that the police chief had me arrested for writing something he didn’t like. My legal team– local Attorney Michael Barnes and the ACLU– sued the City on my behalf. Burke represented the City. We won. And Burke billed the City $58,500 for his losing effort. Of possible interest: Burke is also representing the School Board in the Kathy Reitzel case. As you probably know, Reitzel, the school district’s former financial director, is suing the Board for wrongful termination after blowing the whistle on Monique Acevedo’s theft of $413,000 of school district money and after appearing as the lead witness in the trial of Monique’s husband, former Superintendent of Schools Randy Acevedo. What you may not know is that Reitzel’s legal team– Michael Barnes and Miami Attorney Brett Powell– is the same team that won the DUCKS case against the City several years ago. The final verdict in that case was $8 million!
MATTHEW SHAWN MURPHY– SETTLEMENT PENDING. The article you’ve been reading is about financial settlements the City has paid out over the past five years– not pending lawsuits. But I have to add the lawsuit against the City by the family of Matthew Murphy because a settlement appears to be pending– and it is likely to be a biggie. In the early morning hours of April 16, 2011, Matthew Murphy, then 27, was involved in a fight on Duval Street. According to witnesses, Key West Police Officer Mark Siracuse, without warning, tased Murphy in the back. Since that time, Murphy has been in a Miami hospital in a vegetative state. Murphy and his fiance had planned to marry the following month. They have a young son, who was three months old at the time of the incident. Reportedly, Michael Burke, the City’s attorney in this case, has recommended a settlement which is scheduled to be considered by the City Commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday evening. No details concerning the pending settlement have been released. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: The Matthew Shawn Murphy taser case settled for ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Read the story here.
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