City lawsuits threaten budget

Paul Thissen and Paul Thissen

Evanston’s elms may be getting all the attention this budget season, but a single court decision could put a hole in Evanston’s budget about five times bigger than the cost of the most expensive elm inoculation plan.

The city faces $28 million in liabilities from a number of lawsuits, said Bill Stafford, Evanston’s finance director. The cost of the lawsuits would prevent the city from doing capital improvements, he said.

The Evanston City Council must pass its budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year tonight at its meeting at 8:30 p.m. at the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

Last year the city sold $9 million in bonds to prepare for future liabilities.

“It was put together with the idea to provide resources to deal with litigation issues,” Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said.

If judgments go against the city, officials are ready to issue more bonds, Stafford said.

The biggest lawsuit the city faces comes from a 1997 police chase. A passenger in the chased car was injured in a crash that ended the incident. She sued the city of Evanston, the chasing police officers and the driver of the car in which she was riding. The initial jury verdict, which Evanston appealed, would cost the city about $13 million, Stafford said. A decision on the appeal is due within the next two months.

On Sept. 2, 1997, an unmarked Evanston police car pursued an SUV driven by Tracy Parham, an Evanston man police called a gang member, according to court documents. The chase ended when Parham crashed the SUV on the 700 block of Howard Street.

During the chase, the unmarked police car followed Parham along Evanston and Chicago streets and alleys at speeds exceeding 70 m.p.h. The police car did not turn on its lights or sirens during the chase, according to court documents.

Salonica Prado, a 17-year-old passenger riding in the SUV with Parham, fractured her neck in the crash. She also claims in the suit that the crash injured her brain. She has organization problems, the suit alleges, and she needs a list of tasks to make it through the day.

In the original trial, the jury awarded Prado an $11 million settlement, with 80 percent to be paid by Evanston and 20 percent to be paid by Parham. The city’s total portion of the settlement has increased to $13 million because of interest, Stafford said.

Evanston’s defense team appealed the decision, claiming her mental problems existed before the crash. Prado’s psychiatric record from before the accident should have been admitted as evidence, they claim.

“The court kept out all of the prior medical and mental health records that the plaintiff had beginning in 1996 right through to the accident in September of 1997,” said Richard Ryan, one of Evanston’s lawyers on the case. “Her only claim, aside from some medical claims that were cured (was) inability to concentrate, problems with school, all sorts of problems relating to mental health, which were the exact same complaints she had prior to the arguments.”

Prado’s lawyers claim the court made the right decision, citing a 2002 Supreme Court case which decided that mental health records were not necessarily related to the claim of a brain injury and thus should not be introduced.

Still, Moran said he thought Evanston would win the appeal.

“I think numerous mistakes were made at the trail court level,” Moran said. “I think our arguments are very solid (in the appeal).”

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