City plans for possible liabilities

Evan Drake

Evanston aldermen are considering possibilities for dealing with the city’s potential legal liabilities as several police-pursuit lawsuits remain unresolved.

A settlement in a federal lawsuit between Northwestern and Evanston was reached last week, but the city still faces $22 million in potential legal exposure in other cases — and the case with the most at stake involves a police pursuit.

“It’s just a not-so-happy happenstance,” Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said. “We’ve had a series of circumstances that have just bunched up on us.”

City staff soon plans to issue $12 million in bonds, $9 million of which could be used for potential liabilities. A bond is borrowed public money that the city would pay back at a later time.

The largest case at stake for the city is Prado DeVaul v. City of Evanston, an $11 million suit that the city already lost in trial court and is now appealing. Oral arguments for the appeal have not yet been heard, and a trial date for the appeal has not been set.

The suit involves a police pursuit that led to a car crash at an intersection. The plaintiff said she received head trauma from the crash, an injury the defense says she had prior to the accident.

Lawyers representing the city argue that the decision should be reversed because the judge presiding over the suit made serious mistakes. Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said he has high hopes that the suit will be reversed.

“I would say I am absolutely certain that we’re going to win that appeal,” Bernstein said. “The judge really messed up.”

Moran said his hope doesn’t necessarily translate into a prediction. If the city loses the appeal and any further appeals with the case, the city might need to change its police-pursuit policy, he said.

“If we get pasted in this case,” Moran said, “the circumstances of police chases, in certain cases, might change.”

Moran said the city might have to find a new policy to redefine the circumstances of when and how police pursue cars. In the Prado DeVaul case, the plaintiff said police pursued her through an intersection without sirens and lights.

Mark Smolens, an attorney who assisted in the preparation of the city’s appeal in the case, said he knows of two other pending cases with the city regarding police pursuits.

“We’ve had a number of pursuit cases with the city since the 1980s,” he said. “This isn’t really anything new.”

Evanston isn’t the only city dealing with lawsuits from police pursuits, said Mark Iris, political science lecturer at NU and executive director of the Chicago Citizens Police Review Board.

“It’s probably arguable that a squad car is the most dangerous weapon in the police arsenal,” he said. “A very significant number of people that are injured or killed are third-party bystanders.”

Iris added that $11 million is an exceptionally large amount of money awarded in this type of case. The amount normally might be the total exposure a city might receive in one year, he said.

Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd), who expressed her concern about potential legal liabilities at a recent budget meeting, said aldermen might need to pressure local legislators to push for tort reform in courts. Tort reform generally means changing the legal ground rules in a court by putting a cap on damages and limiting class-action lawsuits.

“It’s a very emotional subject and one in which there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Iris said.

Those that typically oppose tort reform are consumer advocates and trial attorneys, according to Iris. Bernstein, however, said he doesn’t necessarily like the idea of tort reform.

“I believe that when you have a fair trial, you end with a fair result,” Bernstein said. “I trust the jury system. I believe in the system and I don’t think there’s a lot of abuse.”