Civil justice system discourages transparency, experts say

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When a Ross man sued the city in 2010, he maintained that three Pittsburgh police officers had violated his civil rights during a traffic stop in 2006.

When the city's insurer paid $100,000 in July to settle the case, the settlement left the civil rights question unanswered.

Most settlements of lawsuits alleging civil rights violations leave their main questions unanswered because the civil justice system doesn't encourage answering them, two legal experts say.

“The whole system is kind of distorted,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. “It's not based, for the most part, on who was wrong.”

Settlements usually contain a standard clause denying liability, which doesn't vindicate police of wrongdoing, nor does the payment mean that the person who sued had his or her rights violated.

Taxpayers often end up paying legal fees of both sides and the settlement, directly or through the city having to pay higher insurance premiums, but they never get any clear resolution.

“That's the nature of the civil process,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a St. Vincent College law professor. “People don't want to pay money and (then) admit liability. It's not just in these cases. It's in nearly every civil case.”

Tim O'Brien, the lawyer for Jeff Collins, 38, of Ross said they believe the officers violated his rights and had evidence to back up that belief, but the city had evidence it believe exonerated the officers.

In situations like that, a settlement “is probably in everyone's interest,” he said.

Bryan Campbell, the attorney for the officers, said it was the city's call whether to settle, because the city had agreed to cover any damages awarded to Collins.

City Solicitor Dan Regan said the settlement doesn't mean the officers violated Collins' civil rights.

“We don't believe there was any wrongdoing on the part of our officers in the case,” he said.

In general, the question of whether to settle a civil rights complaint against a police officer comes down to what it costs to defend a case versus the cost to settle it, he said. If the numbers add up, the city settles.

“No one can predict what a jury is going to do in any case,” Regan said. “Therefore, we have to make what we believe are the most prudent decisions when we are factoring in costs and risks.”

When the city settled a lawsuit brought by 25 people arrested near Schenley Park on the last night of the G-20 economic summit in 2009, the agreement never addressed the key issue: whether police violated the civil rights of those arrested.

One person dropped her claim, but the city's insurer paid $488,000 to settle claims of the other 24 people.

The fact that the city settles should tell taxpayers something, said Vic Walczak, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“You can say that you're not responsible and you're not wrong until you're blue in the face, but the voters will see that you paid some money,” Walczak said, who added that his organization prefers cases where it can seek an injunction declaring a practice unconstitutional.

Antkowiak said the only way to guarantee resolution of the key issues in civil rights cases would be to set up a separate system for these complaints that required a ruling at least on liability before the parties could settle or go to trial on damages.

“Until you would have something like that, it's going to be kept behind a veil,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or

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