Almost any employer – including government agencies – can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of their employees when those acts or omissions in question occur in the course and scope of employment. However, in a case out of Chicago, the city has agreed to pay $20 million – $10 million each – to the families of two men killed in a fatal DUI accident involving an off-duty city police officer.
The Chicago Tribune reports the city council was embroiled in a fierce debate over the settlement negotiations that followed the families’ wrongful death lawsuits because of concern it would open the city up to liability for a range of wrongful acts committed by employees in their free time. Ultimately, there were two factors that swayed them:
- The families’ allegations (and supporting evidence) that the police department protected this particular officer in previous incidents of wrongdoing, declining to arrest or punish him for alleged crimes. This, the families say, led the officer to reasonably believe he could break the law with impunity.
- The assertion by the plaintiffs’ attorneys that if the case were to be decided by a jury, the damage award could conceivably be much higher.
News reports of the fatal crash indicate that it occurred in April 2009, after the off-duty officer had been drinking for at least five hours at two different bars on the city’s South Side. He then drove his sport utility vehicle on the expressway and rear-ended a vehicle that was pulled over due to a flat tire. The two occupants, friends in their 20s, were killed. The officer’s blood-alcohol level was more than four times the legal limit – and that was hours later.
Plaintiffs alleged the so-called “code-of-silence” shielded the officer from consequences for his previous actions. However, settlement talks didn’t get serious until it was revealed key records involving a bar fight in the officer’s past was improperly held by lawyers for the city.
The officer testified under oath during the proceedings that he’d been in a bar fight in 1992 for which he’d been suspended. This development was a surprise to plaintiff attorneys because records of that suspension were never turned over to them during discovery. That file indicated that during the fight, the officer had broken bar stools, pool cues and glasses, punched one man in the face threw another across a pool table.
For the fatal DUI accident, the officer was ultimately convicted of aggravated DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal crash and is now serving an eight-year prison term.
Chicago has reportedly spent approximately $700 million to cover police misconduct settlements in recent history. This is not to say Florida claimants should assume such cases will be easy. Florida’s sovereign immunity law, F.S. 768.28, only waives civil liability protection of government and public employees under specific circumstances. Even then, damages are capped at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident. The only way to collect more than that is if the state legislature passes a bill to approve it.
Further, it would usually be very difficult to secure a settlement or verdict for a government employee’s off-duty conduct. But as this case shows, it’s often still worth meeting an attorney to discuss your legal options.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.
$20M settlement advances in Chicago cop’s deadly DUI, despite concerns over liability for off-duty behavior, Feb. 26, 2018, By John Byrne, The Chicago Tribune
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