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Posted on Sun. Jul. 29, 2007 - 06:00 am EDT

Settlement usual for abuse suits on officers

Small payouts satisfy city, most plaintiffs

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The tires were squealing when Fort Wayne police officer Larry Tague picked up the chase, hopping in his squad car as the 1989 Ford Tempo continued to accelerate.

With Tague in pursuit, the car slid through an intersection, struck some railroad tracks and blew two tires before stopping in a driveway at southernmost St. Marys Avenue at Polk Street.

It was a short chase, only a couple of blocks through the Nebraska neighborhood, according to Tague’s report. But in the end, the city, not the driver behind the wheel, would pay.

That Tague ran into the house and made arrests on Nov. 17, 2003, is not in question. What happened inside, though, was the subject of a lawsuit. Two people who were hauled away injured that night settled with the city out of court, one for $2,500; the other, $875.

Tague and the city denied any fault.

The case is one of 11 lawsuits alleging excessive police force or improper conduct that the city paid to settle in 2005 and 2006, according to documents provided by the Fort Wayne city attorney’s office. They don’t include cases filed before or during the period for which no agreement or judgment has been reached. Sixty lawsuits alleging wrongful detention or excessive force by city police have been filed since January 2005, City Attorney Tim Manges said.

Two of those involved officer Cory Thomas, who resigned last year amid internal police investigations of improper conduct. Most received little or no public attention. They allege false arrest, pistol whippings, flashlight smackings and pepper sprayings. Seven people claimed injuries: a broken arm, chipped teeth, broken ribs and a broken nose.

Certain trends also emerge: All but one of the settled cases involve the same lawyer. And perhaps more significant, they received relatively little money. The 11 settlements combined cost the city only $46,770.93. In fact, the city spent far more on attorneys to fight the cases than it did on settlement payouts.

Manges said the claims are small because most of them are bogus; the city pays a minimal amount to get rid of them. But attorney Christopher Myers, who files most of the claims against the city, said the stress and cost of a lawsuit prompt many of his clients to settle for far less than they want, believing making a point is enough.

“Even though they don’t get a lot of money, they are standing up for their civil rights, and that’s a big deal for them.”

The Tague chase is not unique or even outstanding among the 11 cases, but it serves as an example of how quickly an otherwise routine arrest can result in allegations of abuse.

In his report, Tague stated that he twice ordered Richard D. Navrotsky to stop, once as the officer – completing an unrelated traffic stop – stepped into the street when the northbound Navrotsky made a fast left in front of him off Sherman Boulevard, and again as Navrotsky and a woman ran from the Tempo into the house.

Entering the kitchen, Tague “spun” Navrotsky to the floor, where he landed hard. Tague then escorted Navrotsky and the woman, Loree Walchle, outside. Both were intoxicated. Walchle was uncooperative, and Tague twice “physically” placed her across the Tempo’s hood, the report states. The two were handcuffed.

Navrotsky’s blood-alcohol content was 0.23 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving; Walchle’s was 0.161 percent, according to the police report.

Navrotsky’s arm was broken and Walchle’s teeth were chipped that night, according to their lawsuit, claiming violation of their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. With Myers as their lawyer, the two received a combined $3,375 from the city, which denied any fault or liability.

Charges against Navrotsky of operating while intoxicated, operating while suspended and resisting law enforcement were dismissed. Walchle was convicted of resisting law enforcement; another count of resisting and a charge of public intoxication were dismissed.

Reached by phone, Navrotsky declined to comment.

Myers, who said he takes police abuse cases because most lawyers won’t, is not unsympathetic to the tough job police have. In fact, he said, in his 15 years of handling local police abuse cases, instances have declined. And, Myers said, he sees few examples of the extreme abuse found in larger cities, noting that none of the 11 cases resulted in horrific injury.

“If a police officer is out there doing what he has to do and he’s reasonable in his use of force and he’s reasonable in his perception for the need for force, then we don’t want that case.”

Fees exceed claims

Though the city settled the Navrotsky-Walchle matter to avoid the cost of defending itself, the case still generated $4,250 in attorney fees, the lowest of the 11 cases settled during the period. Indeed, the city spent $116,331 on lawyers for the 11 cases, more than twice the amount it spent on claims. The money came out of city coffers, because the city is self-insured.

“There’s not a science to it,” Manges said of balancing attorney fees with paying to end a case. “I try not to be predictable because most of these claims are without merit.”

The most costly in terms of attorney fees involved an alleged theft of vodka at the CVS pharmacy at Rudisill Boulevard and Calhoun Street.

After being flagged down March 6, 2004, by employees of the store, police chased Clarence D. Sanders by car and then by foot before catching him. Sanders suffered three broken ribs.

The city spent $19,896 in attorney fees fighting Sanders’ lawsuit. He received a $4,500 settlement. In his criminal case, all charges against him were dropped.

The city spent only slightly less defending itself in a case involving former officer Thomas. A 27-year-old woman alleged in a lawsuit that on Dec. 30, 2005, or Jan. 6, 2006, Thomas approached her at a motel and threatened to arrest her if she didn’t perform a sex act. She complied, according to the lawsuit. The woman settled for $14,500, the largest of the 11 settlements.

Thomas resigned in June 2006. He is the only officer named in the 11 cases who is no longer with the police department, police spokesman Michael Joyner said.

The reasons behind the Thomas internal investigation were not made public except through a handful of lawsuits alleging the officer used excessive force.

Sharian D. Bonner sued the city, Thomas and officer Chris Hoffman, alleging excessive force and false arrest after the officers began quizzing her niece about a neighborhood dispute. Bonner questioned Thomas, and she was arrested for interfering, according to her lawsuit.

No probable cause was found for the disorderly conduct charge, and it was dismissed, according to court records. Bonner settled with the city for $900.

“To Miss Bonner, I recall this, it really was the principle of the thing, and I think that’s a common thread with a lot of these clients,” Myers said.

Many times that’s about all they get.

Myers said he usually receives 40 percent of his clients’ settlements, further reducing their payout. According to one case claiming false arrest, a client settled for $4,770, of which all but $500 went to Myers.

“Oftentimes, I know it sounds very strange, but the attorney’s fees will be much greater than the amount of money received by the client,” Myers said.

Still, he added, the cases aren’t moneymakers.

Settling for little

While Bonner settled for $900, another of Myers’ clients had to make do with even less.

Antoine R. McFarland was attending a birthday party at a Fort Wayne restaurant Aug. 2, 2005, when he had an epileptic seizure. An ambulance crew arrived followed by police, who tried to restrain McFarland – a large man – so he wouldn’t fall and harm himself or others in the restaurant.

McFarland was placed facedown on a gurney, handcuffed and taken to Parkview Hospital. He sued claiming injuries and false arrest, although he was never charged with a crime.

The city spent $14,329 defending itself. It paid McFarland $300 to end the case.

Myers calls it an odd case and not a strong one.

“In some of these cases I can only tell you categorically that the strength of the case isn’t there,” he said. “Sometimes witnesses change their minds and change their stories of what was reported earlier.”

Making a case go away with the least amount of money is often the city’s aim, but not always. Manges said the type of case and whether a plaintiff has made a habit of filing complaints factor in the decision.

“We don’t want to give the impression that if you sue us we will pay you some money to go away,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the case.”

Manges and Myers compliment each other, though they’re on opposite sides of the fence. Manges describes Myers as a nice guy with a good reputation, and Myers says Manges is frugal with the city’s money.

“Tim’s been very, very good for the city in terms of not paying out a whole lot of money in these claims,” Myers said.

That’s not to say the city has dodged large payments. Manges said the biggest police claim during his seven years with the city was a $250,000 settlement with a woman shot and partly blinded in an unjustified police shooting in 1999.

The constraints are always being tested.

Manges said he’s currently handling two of the most expensive cases he has been involved with. Rudy Escobedo, 28, was shot and killed by police in 2005 after calling 911 for help, barricading himself in a closet and threatening suicide.

Derrick C. Ford, 20, was shot and killed by an officer responding to a report of a fight at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Winter Street in 2004. Ford refused to drop his gun and raised it toward the officer, according to reports.

“We’re spending a lot of money, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys in both of those cases won’t even talk about settling unless we’re talking about half a million bucks,” Manges said, “and we’re just not going to do it.”

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