Jovanna LugoThe Los Angeles City Council agreed Friday to a $6.6 million payment to the family of a woman killed by a speeding police patrol car.
The unanimous decision marks the largest amount of taxpayer funds the city has ever paid to resolve a Los Angeles Police Department traffic collision, surpassing a $5 million payout it made in another fatal LAPD crash last year.
Car crashes have emerged as an intractable problem for the LAPD that, in turn, has cost the city considerably as it is forced to either settle the resulting lawsuits or fight them in court. Including the current settlement, the city has paid about $30 million to resolve about 400 LAPD traffic-related lawsuits over the past decade and must contend with dozens more pending cases, city records show.
Despite assurances made in recent months by police officials that the department will improve the way it investigates officer accidents, some council members have grown increasingly frustrated with the LAPD’s apparent inability to get a handle on the issue.
The steady run of lawsuits often puts the council in a no-win situation as it is left little choice but to approve the large settlements in order to avoid the risk of a jury imposing an even greater amount.
"We have no choice," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who would not discuss the particulars of the case.
The payment stems from a 2010 collision in which 27-year-old Jovanna Lugo’s car was broadsided by a LAPD vehicle as she pulled out of her driveway and onto a city street where the posted speed limit was 35 mph.
The officers, who were not responding to an emergency call and so were not entitled to speed, were estimated to be driving about twice the limit. Neither the car’s emergency lights nor siren were not on and at least one witness said the police did not have their headlights on either.
The officers said that Lugo had caused the accident by trying to make an illegal U-turn. But in urging the council to accept the settlement, attorneys for the city said in a report obtained by The Times that there was no evidence to support that claim.
And even if she had been making an illegal turn, an expert hired by the city concluded that "given the lighting conditions and the speed of the police car, Ms. Lugo could not have appreciated the threat," the report said.
The city’s lawyers cautioned that turning down the settlement with Lugo’s husband and young son would bring serious risks.
"If the jury finds the defendants liable for wrongful death, the jury will award a figure in the multiple millions of dollars," wrote Deputy City Atty. John Wright in the report.
Wright went on to say that in a trial, the LAPD’s credibility would be attacked in light of the shoddy investigation that was conducted into the crash. None of the interviews with witnesses to the crash were tape recorded, Wright said, and the witness who said the police car’s headlights were off prior to the accident was not interviewed.
It was Lugo’s death that spurred LAPD officials to reconsider the way the department investigates serious accidents in which officers are suspected of negligence or other significant misconduct, police officials have said.
Prior to the crash, such investigations were treated like typical misconduct inquiries, but the department now treats them similarly to officer-involved shootings.
In shooting inquiries, officers are separated from each other at the scene to avoid collusion, and special teams of detectives spend months gathering evidence and witness testimony. An oversight panel ultimately rules on whether the officers were justified in using force.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the powerful budget committee, described the payment as appropriate given "the tragic circumstances" of the case. Krekorian said he plans to call LAPD officials before his committee to explain what they are doing to lower the department’s risk of lawsuits-–a session that will focus, in part, on accidents involving police vehicles.
"We’re going to have that explicit conversation in my committee," he said after the vote.
From the Los Angeles Times