Benjamin Weiser, New York Times, December 17, 2014
Amid roiling protests and emotions over the death of Eric Garner during a police encounter, the New York City comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, is seeking to negotiate a settlement of a $75 million civil rights claim brought by Mr. Garner’s family.
The effort, if successful, would avert what would quite likely be a long and bitter trial in federal court. At the same time, settling the case at an early juncture–months before Mr. Garner’s family is expected even to file their lawsuit–would effectively push the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio out of the process.
The move is part of Mr. Stringer’s novel strategy to settle major civil rights claims before lawsuits are formally filed; he said he hoped to save taxpayer dollars and bring “closure” to claimants and their families.
Mr. Stringer said he “can’t guarantee what’s going to happen” in the claim by Mr. Garner’s family, but added, “We will attempt to bring a settlement to the Garner case if we’re able.”
Mr. Stringer, speaking generally, said that when his office could balance the city’s financial interests “with bringing closure to a mother who lost her son, that’s in everyone’s interest.”
“And if this office can play that role,” he continued, “I think it’s extremely important.”
His comments suggest that his office believes the city may be found liable at trial, and could be vulnerable to a verdict awarding high damages. Mr. Stringer declined to comment on whether settling the claim would imply wrongdoing on the part of the city or the officers.
The comptroller’s office, known primarily for its stewardship of municipal finances and investments, has traditionally focused on more mundane claims: a slip and fall on a city sidewalk, property damage caused by a sanitation truck or a rights violation where the city’s exposure is not seen as that great.
Lawsuits over wrongful death or exoneration have long been left to the city’s Law Department, an agency with 700 lawyers that often defends cases aggressively in court. Once a case goes to court, the comptroller’s office has no role in legal strategy; it only approves or rejects any settlement that might be reached by the department.
But Mr. Stringer, who was elected independently of the mayor, said he wanted his office to become engaged much earlier in the process.
Mr. Stringer–who, like Mayor de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, won a landslide victory last fall–said he saw the Law Department as a partner. But he added, “Not all cases should be litigated.”
“At some point, you have to look at the process holistically,” he said, adding that early settlement of a meritorious claim could save the city money in the settlement cost itself, litigation costs, legal fees and interest. “And you also have an opportunity to bring closure and security to those who have been wronged,” he said.
He said he also saw a broader benefit to New York; the city spent $732 million in settlements and judgments in the fiscal year ending in June, an increase of $208 million from the prior year, his office has said.