The city paid $32 million in the last fiscal year largely to settle lawsuits over bus crashes and police misconduct, prompting warnings from some elected officials that other looming payouts could deal a significant financial blow to Detroit.
The vast majority (82%) of the settled cases involved the Detroit Department of Transportation, often from buses crashing into people or private property. DDOT was involved in 409 of the 497 settlements paid in the fiscal year between July 2021 and June 2022, according to data obtained by BridgeDetroit under the Freedom of Information Act. Though the Detroit Police Department had fewer cases settled, the payments were far more expensive: 50 lawsuits against DPD accounted for $22.3 million in settlement payouts, while DDOT settlements cost the city $8.6 million.
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Each week, the Detroit City Council votes on a “depressing” number of legal settlements, said Council Member Mary Waters. The most recent council agenda included approval of 18 settlement agreements totaling $1.2 million. The amounts ranged from $3,500 to $450,000. Council members also voted to provide legal representation to three Detroit police officers and a city employee.
Waters serves on a committee tasked with oversight of internal operations, which includes recommending action on settlements and legal representation to the full City Council. Waters said the city must find ways to better train employees and avoid lawsuits.
At the same time, Waters said while the settlements appear large, those lawsuits could result in an even higher cost to taxpayers if those cases went to court.
“It has been pretty well predicted that when governmental entities take those things to court rather than settlement it’s usually much, much, much more expensive, and that’s the issue that our Law Department is often faced with,” Waters said in an interview.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi and Steve Watson, deputy CFO and budget director, declined to comment on how the city decides whether to settle a lawsuit. They also declined to answer questions about the burden lawsuits place on the post-bankrupt city’s finances. Detroit is in the process of drafting its budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Raimi warned the City Council in March that an increase of lawsuits against DPD raises “very serious liability issues for the city.” At the time, Detroit had 18 pending wrongful incarceration cases involving current or former police officers. Raimi said 1,300 cases against the city were open at the start of 2022. Police lawsuits are fewer in number but can incur millions of dollars in costs.
“It’s not only the quantity of cases, it’s the exposure of specific cases that is important,” Raimi said at the time.
No other department had a payout over $1 million in the last fiscal year. DPD had three:
- $9.95 million was paid to Mubarez Ahmed, who was wrongfully imprisoned 17 years for a murder he did not commit. The Dearborn resident was exonerated in 2018.
- $7.5 million went to Davontae Sandford, whose murder conviction was dropped in 2016 at the request of Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy after finding misconduct by Detroit police tainted the case. Another man came forward to confess to the murders.
- $2.35 million was paid to Ledura Watkins, who served 41 years in prison for murder before his sentence was vacated in 2017. The judge found Watkin’s conviction was based on forensic analysis that was deemed unreliable.
Council Member Latisha Johnson chairs the internal operations committee and said expensive police lawsuits are a “tremendous concern.” She said 15 wrongful incarceration lawsuits are still in motion, which “could be a large blow to the city financially.”
“Considering the number of them that are still outstanding, it poses a huge problem,” Johnson said. “When I think about 15 wrongfully convicted lawsuits that are still going through the process, and because the payouts have been as large as it has been, it’s extremely concerning. The question is: How do you even prepare for it?”
Relatives of Porter Burks, a 20-year-old Detroit man who was fatally shot by police in October, filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city and five police officers involved in the shooting. Burks, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was experiencing a mental health crisis when officers were called by his family to help calm him down. Burks was carrying a knife and allegedly ran toward officers before they began shooting, firing 38 rounds at Burks within three seconds.
The City Council has yet to approve legal representation in the case. Officers involved in the shooting weren’t named by DPD, pending a criminal investigation into Burks’ death. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office announced no charges will be filed. A Law Department memo states that the officers won’t be named until an administrative investigation is completed and any necessary discipline is carried out.
The City Council does not always decide to offer legal representation for police officers or other city employees who face a lawsuit. Waters said employees who are obviously reckless or acting in bad faith, based on the Law Department’s recommendations, won’t receive access to Detroit’s legal services. Council discusses the merits of legal representation in closed sessions which aren’t accessible to the public. Details of legal settlements are not included in council agendas, though residents can see the case numbers and parties involved.
“I review them on a case by case basis,” Johnson said. “All of the information is privileged and confidential. There have been times when we’ve been provided information and I have questions around the situation that actually transpired. Sometimes it just does not add up … Naturally when I feel that way, when there’s something that just kind of raises a red flag for me, we’ll send questions to the Law Department or to the police department to shed some light and then make that determination.”
Detroit is self-insured through its Risk Management Fund, which pays for losses incurred from workers compensation, legal claims, settlements and other administrative expenses. The fund protects city departments from unexpected budget impacts since the cost of legal claims fluctuates each year, Watson said in a statement. Detroit uses in-house lawyers and occasionally taps outside counsel to adjudicate lawsuits.
The most recent budget includes $24 million in annual contributions to the Risk Management Fund, Watson said. That’s less than the $32.5 million Detroit paid in settlements during the 2020-21 fiscal year.
The Risk Management Fund is required to maintain a balance of $20 million. The balance fell below that level in 2007, but has been increasing in recent years. At the end of fiscal year 2020-21, the fund had a $37.6 million balance. Watson didn’t provide comment on the health of the fund.
The increase in funding could prove critical as the average number of lawsuits filed against Detroit increased from roughly 500 per year to 750 per year since 2019, according to a March budget report.
Detroit officials declined to release details of settlement payouts from past fiscal years, so BridgeDetroit is seeking the information through an information request. Previous BridgeDetroit reporting shows there were 485 cases filed in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, resulting in 104 settlements for a total of $2.7 million.
Another March report from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer found Detroit spent $60 million resolving liability claims from 2018 to 2021. DPD cases cost the city $30 million over those four years, while DDOT cases cost $23.5 million.
Detroit data shows that 304 settlements involved DDOT vehicle crashes with other drivers or pedestrians, while 43 involved people being injured while boarding or riding buses. There were 23 cases settled with DPD over constitutional rights violations, and 38 cases involved other kinds of city vehicles hitting private cars or pedestrians.
Johnson said DDOT is exposed to a higher risk of being sued because of Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law, which allows for lawsuits against negligent drivers in certain circumstances.
“We had corporation counsel, via a closed session, share with us what they actually go through to determine whether or not they should litigate the matter or to settle, and a lot of it has to do with the likelihood of the city winning the case, the amount of time that it will take and the financial burden on the city,” Johnson said.
A Risk Management Council with leaders from multiple city departments meets quarterly to discuss liability risks and solutions to reduce the city’s exposure to lawsuits. One action borne from the meetings was an effort to collect video evidence in DDOT cases, which Raimi said has helped the city defend itself against fraudulent claims by riders who allege they were injured in crashes.
DDOT reported that preventable collisions and injuries are down slightly in the last two years, in part thanks to the arrival of a Chief Safety Officer and the implementation of new policies. The top three settlement payouts from DDOT suits involve bus collisions:
- $845,000 was paid to Jessica Webb, who was injured by a city bus that collided with her car after Webb crashed into another driver. Webb’s car struck her and launched her some 20 feet, according to court documents.
- $475,000 was paid to Philip Tucker for alleged injuries from a city bus in 2021.
- $245,000 was paid to Ronald Cross for alleged injuries from a city bus in 2019.
Police Chief James White, who took over the department in 2021, created a risk management unit after taking charge of the department last year. Each officer is designated with a “risk score” based on the number of citizen complaints, disciplinary incidents, use of force, vehicle pursuits and other factors over the length of their career.
“I think Chief White is more focused on (risk management) and making sure that police officers are trained properly,” Johnson said. “We haven’t necessarily gotten to the point where we’ve seen officers behaving improperly under this leadership to know whether or not there’s a difference in behavior from the previous chief in comparison to this chief. What I’ve seen is that there are probably more times than there were in the past, where the department does not recommend that the officer is provided legal representation.”
Data provided to BridgeDetroit shows the Department of Public Works had 16 settlements totalling $616,000. The Detroit Fire Department and General Services Department each had six settlements totaling $134,887 and $383,250, respectively.