Home Wrongful Death Lawsuits ‘Risks’ to transparency? Louisville Metro weighs sharing information to reduce lawsuit payouts | WDRB Investigates

‘Risks’ to transparency? Louisville Metro weighs sharing information to reduce lawsuit payouts | WDRB Investigates

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LOUSIVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — As Louisville Metro government looks to curb legal settlements that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in recent years — everything from wrongful deaths at the hands of police to employment discrimination — all 22 Metro department heads say having more information about claims against the city could help them improve their operations.

But some city officials see “risks” in more transparency — particularly, the possibility of plaintiffs attorneys gaining an edge and extracting even more payouts from the city.

Directors and top administrators of Metro departments were surveyed as part of a special report on city settlements conducted by the Metro Office of Internal Audit that was published last month. The report looked at using legal claims and lawsuit data to inform policy and process improvements.

The idea is to discover simple changes that could reduce Metro’s liability.

“For example, if we have a large number of settlements related to workers compensation where somebody falls off a ladder on a regular basis, maybe it’s the kind of ladders we’re purchasing,” Metro Council President David James said.

A prior WDRB investigation revealed Metro Louisville paid more than $40 million in settlements since 2017, with most of the claims tied to Louisville Metro Police. The WDRB review found Louisville’s settlement payouts much higher than peer cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Oklahoma City and New Orleans.

The report from the city audit department showed some department directors do not review or receive enough information to make changes. The most consistent way claim information is disseminated is through a quarterly budget report to Metro Council. And what those leaders then do with the data varies. Most said they only review workers compensation claims.

“It just seems to me that we could do a better job Metro government-wide,” James said. “(Let’s) make sure that we have great training and we hold people accountable and that we look at things that are impacting us through the civil court system and try to do things to prevent that.”

But not everyone agrees that Metro government should have a systematic way to share information about legal claims.

Metro government’s risk management arm raised concerns about information being too widely available, according to the Internal Audit report.

“Tracking and sharing claims data across Louisville Metro Government presents risks that should be considered before any process is implemented,” according to the report.

For example, creating an accessible report or database could expose “sensitive claims information” to the public through the open records process or through city employees who would have access to it.

“Settlement and other claims data in the hands of external parties may increase liability and the quantity of future claims,” the report warns. “Such information could serve as a guide to suing Louisville Metro Government.”

Metro government’s Office of Budget and Management offered an alternative idea: to create a committee to analyze safety concerns and address process improvements.

“It’s important to evaluate trends, settlements, and incidents that are brought to our attention to help identify and guide areas of improvement,” Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokesperson Jessica Wethington said. “The Mayor believes in transparency, but also appreciates the concern relating to access to information and the impact it may have on future litigation.”

The statement stopped short of saying whether the administration would implement a process for settlement data usage before Fischer terms out of office in January.

James said he understands those concerns, but reducing the city’s legal claims is paramount.

“I don’t want the transparency to hurt the bottom line of the city, but I do believe that having that information for our policy leaders in the executive branch would help tremendously,” James said. “We’re north of $40 million already, and so I would think the goal is to try to reduce that as much as possible.”

Those who have received payouts from the city said accountability is lacking.

In January, Metro paid former Department of Public Health and Wellness administrative assistant MarySusan Ward $1 million to settle a seven-year lawsuit in which she claimed wrongful termination, retaliation and pay discrimination.

“It’s like (the city) will not acknowledge that they’re doing anything wrong,” Ward said. “Money talks. … Do not treat me different because of the color of my skin. … Nobody deserves that.”

Ward’s was one of 14 employment-related payouts the city made since 2017, costing taxpayers nearly $3.5 million in all.

Ta’John Ferguson said he was “disgusted” after receiving $176,000 in a wrongful arrest case. He spent 10 months in jail after being wrongly charged with robbery. In fact, he owned the Xbox gaming device he had been accused of stealing. He had his receipt and was simply trying to sell it to someone he met online.

Ferguson’s payout is part of the nearly $38 million the city has shelled out to settle claims made against LMPD.

“It changes you and makes you look at life completely different,” he said. “The fact that they can do that and they don’t have to answer for it — (there’s) no accountability, as if they’re immune.”

Louisville taxpayers also face more exposure for legal liabilities after the company that provided Metro government’s excess insurance coverage dropped the city last July. That came after paying, among other large settlements, $5 million of the total $12 million paid to the family of Breonna Taylor, the woman fatally shot in her apartment in March 2020 as police executed a search warrant.

Despite disparate opinions within Metro government on how to curb legal liabilities, the uptick in settlements has prompted at least one change.

LMPD walked backed its policy regarding when officers are allowed to chase fleeing vehicles, reverting to a more cautious approach that had previously been in place.

Former LMPD Chief Steve Conrad relaxed the policy in 2019, allowing officers to pursue vehicles that had been confirmed stolen.

The new policy, which took effect April 26 according to an internal memo written by Chief Erika Shields, is a return to a stance first enacted in December 2012 to reduce deaths and injuries caused by the chases.

LMPD officers can now pursue only suspects involved in a violent felony.

A January 2020 investigation by The Courier-Journal revealed that after the policy was relaxed in 2019, police chases rose 52 percent, seven people had been killed and the number of people injured had more than doubled. In addition, lawsuits against the department were piling up.

Shields put the more stringent chase policy back in place weeks after the city paid the family of 13-year-old Ki’Anthony Tyus $850,000. Tyus died after a crash at the end of a police chase. He was a passenger in the car.

Tyus’ Grandmother told WDRB she was “devastated” after his death.

Copyright 2022 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.

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