City of Chicago Admits Mistake, Gets Rewarded | Bleader

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

City of Chicago Admits Mistake, Gets Rewarded

Posted By on 12.15.09 at 04:41 PM

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Honesty pays. When you do something wrong, admit it. Chicago just learned that lesson the easy way.

In 2003 a Chicago police officer, Alvin Weems, reporting for duty at the 95th Street CTA station and not yet in uniform, came upon a fistfight involving several youths, pulled his gun. and approached. Several seconds later, security cameras captured Weems as he pointed that gun at the head of 23-year-old Michael Pleasance, who hadn't taken part in the brawl but was holding the jacket of a friend who had. Weems pulled the trigger.

The story of how police brass "helped make the problem go away" was told by John Conroy in Killed on Camera, the Reader cover story on April 19, 2007. Along with Conroy's story, which reported the original, inaccurate police versions of the shooting, we posted a video (see below) of the incident on our Web site so readers could see for themselves.

Pleasance's mother, Pamela Pleasance, filed suit against the city, and Conroy reported that it progressed slowly, in part because the city "repeatedly ignored court orders to supply documents." But in a deposition, Weems allowed that he hadn't intended to shoot Pleasance and had no reason to shoot him, as he didn't feel threatened by Pleasance or anyone else when his gun went off.

And when the trial was held in December 2007, the city took responsibility. The jury awarded the family $12.5 million.

On Monday a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court threw out the verdict.

The plaintiffs' mistake had been to focus too much on Pleasance having been killed by a Chicago police officer. As the city had stepped up and conceded as much, it was enough to say that Officer Weems had had a role in Michael Pleasance's love and sweetness and je ne sais quois just sort of going away.

"Because defendants admitted liability," said the unanimous opinion written by Judge Bertina Lampkin, "the trial proceeded solely to determine damages for plaintiff's loss of society. Loss of society includes 'the deprivation of love, companionship, and affection from the deceased person.'... The manner in which Michael died was wholly immaterial to the determination of loss of society."

Attorney Al Schwartz, who represented the Pleasance family, tells me the city cannot be sued for simple negligence, so the suit accused it of "willful and wanton" conduct, which the city conceded, since if it hadn't conceded willful and wanton conduct Schwartz would have shown the video of Michael's death in court in order to prove it. But trial judge William Taylor told the plaintiffs not to get carried away with the phrase, and Lampkin, in her opinion, asserted, "Defendants' liability, willful and wanton or otherwise, was not relevant to the love, affection, care, attention, companionship, comfort, guidance, and protection Pamela lost as a result of Michael's death."

Schwartz and cocounsel Craig Mannarino simply did not hold their tongues to the appellate court's satisfaction. "Plaintiff's counsel's repeated improper and prejudicial comments require the granting of a new trial," Lampkins wrote... :[Taylor] did not restrain plaintiff's counsel from 'a lot of willful and wanton.'"

Schwartz tells me the city didn't even object to a lot of the language that Lampkin would nevertheless deem unacceptable. Lampkin didn't care. "We recognize that some of the comments were not objected to by defendants and that the failure to object generally results in waive," she wrote. Nevertheless, those comments "were a base appeal to emotion and prejudice. They had no place in this damages trial."

This was presumably one such comment. It was made by Mannarino in closing. "I just want to share with you a quote from Martin Luther King that I think about when I'm engaged in trials like this one," Mannarino said. "Dr. King said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' Justice here requres a substantial verdict for the Pleasance family."

Responded Lampkin, "It was certainly not the jury's duty to eradicate the racial injustices described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

"A travesty," says Schwartz.

Kralovec, Jambois & Schwartz, said in a statement: "It is truly unfortunate for Michael's family that the City of Chicago doesn't have to adhere to the same rules as any other defendant. In a case where a defendant admits that their wrongdoing caused the death of an individual, it has long been the rule that the jury is given specific instructions under the law telling them exactly what the defendant has admitted so that the jurors have some context in which to make their decision. This opinion today says that that rule no longer applies to the City of Chicago."

The statement went on to note that Lampkin "has never served as a judge in the civic arena [but] has been employed as an assistant corporation counsel — the entity that defends the City of Chicago in cases such as these."

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