Deep Pockets in the Public Sector—Case Study


All three of these cases are variations on the same theme: deep pockets. Cities and other public entities are sometimes tempting targets for lawsuits because they can pay out big settlements. Cities facing such suits have to confront two ethical issues:

  1. When is it okay for a public entity to settle a lawsuit even if justice is not achieved?
  2. When is it okay for the public entity to keep spending money even when it is cheaper to settle?
  1. Mrs. Morton is skateboarding along the sidewalk in her hometown of Worthington, trying to keep up with her five-year-old, who is just learning to ride his bike. She hits a crack, falls, and sprains her ankle. She then brings suit against the city of Worthington, charging negligence and asking for $50,000 in lost wages, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium. The city attorney of Worthington, Marian Lowe, is unclear how Mrs. Morton’s injury resulted in lost wages, as she is a secretary whose work does not require the use of her ankle; and Lowe is really not sure what the injury has to do with consortium. At the same time, she knows that litigating the case will cost the city at $10,000 to $20,000, and if the city loses, that money will come on top of the $50,000 award. How important is it for the city of Worthington to defend against this claim?
  1. Citizens for a Green Laforge have organized to protest the city of Laforge’s decision to develop a parcel of farmland as a new condo village. Laforge has required the developer to submit an environmental impact report (EIR), which has been duly completed to the satisfaction of the City Planning Department and the state Natural Resources Agency. But the citizens’ group is not happy with this outcome and sues the city in an effort to delay the planned project. The city can commission a new EIR at a cost of $250,000 or fight the suit at a cost of $180,000-and possibly still have to order a new EIR or ditch the project all together. Should the city go to court?
  1. Officers Jim Greer and Eric Manning of the Anytown Police Department are called to the scene of a fight. They identify themselves to the combatants and order them to stop. One man does as they request, but the other, Alan Comden, continues to advance on his now-unresisting adversary. Officer Manning fires his Taser at Comden, and Comden falls forward, his face hitting the asphalt. Comden loses four teeth, lacerates his lip, and sues the Anytown Police Department for excessive use of force. The city councilmembers believe that Manning followed Taser protocol correctly, but they also know that it will cost them more to defend against the suit than to come to a settlement with Comden.

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