Taxpayer-funded payments to settle lawsuits against the city have reached a five-year high, largely driven by claims targeting Detroit’s transportation and police departments.
Since 2017, Detroit has paid out $88.9 million to settle 1,528 lawsuits involving allegations of police misconduct, destruction of property, injuries from city buses and other issues.
Detroit’s top lawyer said the city is doing its best to keep the costs reasonable and that payouts spiked as court operations return to normal after a pandemic-induced backlog. But for some, the increase raises transparency issues and debate over how to rein in liability risks.
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A BridgeDetroit review showed three out of four lawsuits settled in the last five years involved the Detroit Department of Transportation. Settlements against DDOT nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022, rising from 224 to 409.
Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. told BridgeDetroit that the rise in settlement agreements – which doubled in two years – is tied to delays in court activity during the pandemic and said that the city isn’t under any more legal pressure than it has been in the past.
“We are really not settling more cases now that we’ve gotten past COVID,” Mallett said. “It’s going to feel that way because so many cases have been in a backlog.”
Detroit resident Ramone Jackson said the uptick in settlements is evidence that there isn’t enough transparency around why lawsuits against the city are settled, which makes him skeptical of whether those legal deals are warranted. The amount of money flowing to personal injury law firms each week, he argued, sounds like a “Ponzi scheme.”
“Law firms are chewing on the residents’ tax payments,” Jackson said. “I’m totally against anyone being wrongfully convicted and sent to prison, but the residents are biting the burden for officers who are (allegedly) doing wrong. I wouldn’t dare talk about a person being convicted and sent to prison for 20 years and not being adequately compensated. I’m saying that that is coming out of the residents’ tax dollars.”
Litigation discussions are exempt from the Open Meetings Act, so City Council conversations about providing legal representation to city employees and the merits of settlement agreements happen in private. Each week, the council approves dozens of legal settlements during its formal session with little or no discussion.
Each legal case is given a rating that determines its likelihood of success, according to city budget documents. The dollar value of any eventual payouts are based on the facts of each case, industry standards relative to the type of injuries or damages involved, and the experience of the attorneys involved, according to the city.
“We’re watching carefully and working hard to make sure that we’re keeping these costs as low as we possibly can,” Mallett said. “There’s no question that we have this conversation internally about whether we’re going to settle, whether we’re going to try these cases. We are diligently trying to get the best result that we possibly can.”
Mallett said the city struggled with lawsuits from incidents on city buses. Because Detroit is self-insured, he said, the city is liable to pay personal injury protection insurance benefits to victims of bus crashes.
BridgeDetroit’s analysis of city data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found 92% of settlement payments from 2017 to 2022 came from lawsuits against the Detroit Police Department ($42.7 million) and the Department of Transportation ($39.5 million).
More than one-third of the total settlement cost ($32.5 million) was spent in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended last June, and featured three multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the police department.
While lawsuits against DDOT were more frequent, they often were less expensive. The average cost of settlements involving DDOT was $33,755, while the average settlement involving DPD was $194,039.
The most expensive DDOT settlement went to Jesus Moreno, who was awarded $9.5 million in 2017. Moreno was hit three years earlier by a city bus that blew a red light. Moreno, who was wearing a helmet while riding his motorcycle, lost his right hand and suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash. Moreno was represented by the Mike Morse Law Firm, one of many personal injury legal groups in the Detroit area.
‘It’s directly connected to safety’
BridgeDetroit asked the city how risk control policies have been improved, but did not receive a response. When asked what DDOT is doing to stem the flow of lawsuits, Mallett defended the department’s training program.
“Let me put it this way, if DDOT were missing rigorous training opportunities, we would have been able to point that out,” Mallett said. “If there were things internally to DDOT that we could suggest, there’s no question that they would follow through enthusiastically.”
Schetrone Collier, a career DDOT bus driver and president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 said inexperienced bus drivers can expose the city, and other drivers, to increased risk. Collier said the city’s transportation department is bleeding drivers at a rapid rate. DDOT has 322 fewer staff positions than budgeted, according to the city’s year-end financial report for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
“We’ve had a lot of turnover. The bulk of DDOT operators have less than five years of operating a coach, and in my 34 years of experience, those are typically the operators who have the bulk of the accidents,” Collier said. “It’s directly connected to safety. It’s a technical skill to drive a bus. It’s a whole different skill set.”
Collier, like Mallett, vouched for DDOT’s training program, but said experience is harder to teach.
“I believe that DDOT has an excellent training department, but when we’re turning over that many people these are the things that will happen,” Collier said.
“In no way am I saying that the department is deficient in its attention and approach to training people,” he added.
Last year’s annual risk management report showed a decline in preventable collisions and injuries on DDOT buses since the hiring of a chief safety officer and implementation of new policies and expectations. The department in 2021 updated DDOT charters that set ground rules for evaluating safety procedures, reporting incidents and tracking data.
Mallett argued lawsuits are sometimes against DDOT filed on false pretenses. Lawsuits filed by people who “manipulated” the facts is a “really big thorn in our side,” Mallett said.
“I really do think there’s an industry surrounding this thing,” Mallett said Tuesday while on his way to a settlement review meeting. “If you look at these cases, we have physician testimony that directly says ‘John Jones’ doesn’t need services, but he goes to a different doctor with a different opinion and gets those services and charges back to the City of Detroit for services that one doctor says are completely totally unnecessary … Working through that morass and being able to convince a judge and or jury that (someone) is not behaving with integrity is very hard to do.”
Collier said he has direct experience with people being dishonest in the hopes of scoring a payout from the city. In one case, Collier said a person who ran a red light and struck his bus admitted to being disoriented because of their medication, but sued Collier anyway. He said the outcome is unclear, since drivers aren’t notified of the resolution of lawsuits filed against them.
Collier described another incident in which five people who witnessed a crash between his bus and a car jumped into the car before the police arrived and then they allegedly pretended they were passengers in the car when the crash happened. Collier said he’s heard of similar situations where people will rush on to a city bus following a crash and then claim that they had been onboard during a crash.
“Bus cameras have been able to help in those situations, because you can clearly see prior to the accident happening who was on the bus and you can take a clear headcount,” Collier said. “That’s usually the first thing you do as an operator – check who is OK and count who is on the bus, keep them secured so nobody can get on or off.”
More settlements are coming
While Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration says city departments are focused on improving risk control policies to protect Detroit from unnecessary lawsuits, the city estimates its liability for litigation and workers compensation claims could total $283 million.
Settlement payments are covered by the city’s Risk Management Fund. As of June 30, 2022, the Risk Management Fund reserve fund balance was $41 million. The current 2022-23 budget contributed $24 million to the fund. The city might need to add new funding to reserve to support future expenses, according to a statement from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
A stack of potentially costly lawsuits against DPD are still pending. A recent financial report noted there are 17 wrongful incarceration lawsuits against current or former Detroit police officers. Just under half of the total cost of settlement payments in the last five years came from lawsuits against DPD, despite making up only 14% of the number of settled cases.
The CFO’s office declined to comment on whether the 2022-23 fiscal year could be more or less expensive for settlement payments.
City departments have a safety representative that works on improving risk control policies, according to the CFO’s office. Steps taken in recent years include increasing workforce safety and driver training programs, and improving internal processes to review the cause of accidents and installing cameras on DDOT buses.
Esmat Ishag-Osman, a Detroit policy expert at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said it’s significant to note that the city ended its 2022 fiscal year with a $230 million surplus. That’s a potential source of dollars to boost the Risk Management Fund, he said.
“Prior to bankruptcy, the city was being sued often and for almost anything,” Ishag-Osman said. “The Risk Management Fund would often get depleted and there was an idea that you could sue the city and that was an easy way to make money.”
Ishag-Osman said the city is in good financial health, posting a surplus for five years in a row.
“In terms of (the increase in settlements) posing a risk to the city’s budget or future, I don’t see any risk right now,” he said. “I don’t see any concern for the budget in the long-term.”
The most expensive settlement of the last five years was a $9.95 million deal reached in 2021 with Mubarez Ahmed, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years on a double murder conviction. The Dearborn resident was exonerated in 2018 after his case was visited by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit and the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic, which proved Detroit police mishandled the investigation by manipulating witnesses and evidence to pin the crimes on Ahmed.
Ahmed filed a lawsuit against the City of Detroit seeking $105 million in damages. A court panel awarded him $9.95 million instead, potentially saving the city from an even larger payout.
Other major settlement payments made in the last five years include:
- $8.25 million to the family of a 7-year-old girl who was killed in 2010 by a Detroit police officer that raided her home while searching for her father, who was later convicted for providing a weapon used in a murder. The raid was being filed by a TV camera crew.
- $7.5 million 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 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.
Two other city departments had more than $1 million in settlement payouts in the last five years. The city paid $3 million to settle lawsuits against the Department of Public Works and $1.8 million to settle lawsuits against the Fire Department.