Special Report: Out of court settlements and your tax dollars

Local News

The business of governing comes with risk.

Lawsuits and claims are filed by people who believe a city, county, or township can and should pay up.

Locally, the results of these cases have varied significantly in recent years, from zero to seven figures in and out of court settlements. But, what it actually cost taxpayers may surprise you.

A video provided powerful evidence work release inmate Felix Manus died after an asthma attack, his family claiming prison officers waited too long to get help. Erie County settled out of court for $1.1 million dollars, an unusual end.

“The vast majority of the cases, civil cases filed against the county, are dismissed and there’s no money paid at all,” said Richard Perhacs, Erie County Solicitor.

Perhacs says four cases involving a cash payment have been settled out of court since he became county solicitor 18 months ago. When there is money paid, Perhacs says it comes from the county’s insurance company.

Those four cases totaled $3.25 million.

Because the insurance company ultimately cuts the check, they often decide who does and does not get paid.

“We might be more concerned with setting a precedent or message that might be inherent in what the settlement is. Insurance companies tend to make decisions on cold, hard dollars and cents kind of concerns,” said Perhacs.

“The city has insurance that covers it, but it’s also naive to say if a case is settled or there’s a verdict in favor of a plaintiff against the city, ‘oh well, we have insurance. It doesn’t cost anything,'” said Ed Betza, Erie City Solicitor.

City of Erie Solicitor Ed Betza calls settlements “very, very rare.” Records provided by his office show 25 claims filed since 2015 where settlements in the thousands were being sought. There have been eight cash payouts totaling $231,500.

The highest amount being $125,000 for the Montrice Bolden case. Bolden claimed police used excessive force during an arrest.

The lowest paid was $3,000 to community activist Gary Horton who was injured when he walked into a sign he claimed was too low.

Horton said he was not interested in commenting for this story and efforts to speak with others about their cases were also unsuccessful.

Erie City Council’s President voted against several of these settlements.

“We are not in the business of handing out money. It’s not our money to hand out. This is taxpayer money and has to be treated with all levels of protection,” said Betza.

The records provided by Betza shows 17 of those 25 cases ended with no money paid by the city.

“If anybody gets the impression that all you have to do is find your way to the courthouse and file a complaint and you’re going to get a check, you’d be sadly mistaken,” said Perhacs.

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