Judging from recent jury-based awards against New York City, one would think the city has unlimited resources filled by an anonymous group of donors. It also appears that accidents have become the best way to increase ones fortune.
Unfortunately, the resources do come from someone, the hardworking taxpayers. Taxpayers have little say in stopping such frivolous suits from becoming windfall cash cows for those who use circumstance, natural disasters and accidents to become rich.
Less than a month ago, the city was forced to pay David Diaz, a quadriplegic, $26 million for an accident he claims was the city’s responsibility to prevent.
It seems Diaz, a 21 year-old man who had moved to New York three years before from his native Puerto Rico, decided to dive off the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island, Brooklyn because he saw others doing it.
What he didn’t take into consideration on that August day in 1991 was the depth of the water, and the dive cost him the use of his limbs for life.
Diaz took his broken body to court and the jury, although informed of the city signs and fencing warning against such action, awarded him the huge amount of cash.
His case is not the only one to result in such a decision. Only three months before the Diaz decision, two brothers, John and Virgil Brown, were awarded $100 million by a jury for having broken their spines in a similar diving accident.
While the city is appealing these decisions, it is sad to realize that such cases are not the exception. Even if the city hadn’t had signs warning of such danger each of these men should have been held accountable for their own actions. Each has suffered, but bankrupting the city will not make their pain go away or restore their ability to walk.
The city was recently required to pay $270,000 to a Polish immigrant because she was arrested at a Manhattan bar where she worked when it was raided by the city.
The woman, who doesn’t speak English well, was asked to produce a liquor license by the officers. She only presented a copy of the license and when she finally provided the original, it was thought to be invalid.
She was cuffed and arrested, but the charges were dismissed three months later.
Her lawyer contends the incident caused her to suffer flashbacks of her treatment while living in Poland. Besides ordering the city to pay, Officer Charles Daskalakis, the arresting officer, was slapped with $7,500 in punitive damages for the false arrest.
In Queens this week another award is being sought by a family whose son was killed when a tree branch fell on him. After the 17-year-old-teen died, his family sued the Board of Education for $5 million because it owns the property where the tree grew.
The city was able to settle the suit for $125,000. But, it later discovered that the family had not paid the $11,707 in hospital costs to Medicaid. Yes, the family was on public assistance, but the city wanted the family to use part of the cash settlement to cover the hospital bills.
Now some city officials are sympathizing with the family and urging Medicaid to forgive the debt.
There is no doubt the case would have resulted in a larger cash award had it gone to court. Ask any city official who deals with these situations and they’ll tell you it’s cheaper to settle than to risk a sympathy decision from a jury.
While we empathize with those who have lost loved ones and those who have been injured, more than 8,000 cases against the city each year defy reason.
When the city is negligent it should pay, but the cash awards have gotten out of hand and the need for reform and a cap on such damages is becoming more apparent.
Such awards hurt our already depleted city services. They result in less school funding, fewer police, lower teacher salaries, less park services and the list goes on.
We ask that our legislators stop catering to plaintiff attorneys who supported their campaigns and focus on the needs of the city by stopping such frivolous suits and passing the Tort Reform Package which places a cap on government payouts.
Without such restrictions, New York’s future is bleak.