Police victim, city will settle for $6 million

Injuries from 1997 arrest left man a quadriplegic

Board of Estimates to vote today

Deal `pretty good' despite jury's award of $39 million

December 01, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

A man whose neck was broken during a 1997 arrest by Baltimore police has agreed to a $6 million settlement with the city, according to a deal scheduled for approval today.

The city's Board of Estimates is set to vote at its meeting this morning on the settlement with Jeffrey Adrian Alston, 39, a quadriplegic receiving around-the-clock care at an Ellicott City nursing home. The agreement resolves Alston's legal claims against the city. This year, a jury awarded him $39 million, but a payout could have been reduced or delayed by appeals.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that the city and Alston's attorneys found "common ground" on a settlement that would cover the costs of caring for Alston. Tyler said that clearly "something happened" in the 1997 incident between Baltimore police and Alston, and that the settlement was a fair conclusion to the case.

The reduction from $39 million to $6 million was not a surprise to legal observers who said Alston risked having the award reduced even more or lost altogether during appeals. State law dictates a $650,000 limit on "noneconomic" damages such as pain and suffering, which accounted for the bulk of the jury's award to Alston. The limit at the time of the injury seven years ago was $545,000.

A Circuit Court jury ordered the city in June to pay the former resident of the 2500 block of Hollins St. $559,334 for past medical expenses, $8.5 million for future life-care costs and $30 million for physical and mental pain, impairment and disfigurement.

"Six million in hand is worth $39 million in the appellate court," said David V. Diggs, an attorney with the Baltimore firm of Kahn, Smith & Collins, which is not associated with the Alston case. Several other personal injury lawyers not involved in the case agreed.

"The benefit of such a settlement to the plaintiff is the avoidance of a delay in appeals, which can take three years, and the possibility that the verdict might be reversed and the case sent back for a new trial," said Stephen Nolan, a Towson attorney.

Evidence at risk

Keith Truffer, another Towson attorney, said another risk in a new trial would be that certain evidence admitted in the first trial could be excluded the second time around, jeopardizing the awards for medical costs made by the jury.

"The court may throw out the verdict altogether, in which case a $6 million settlement sounds pretty good," Truffer said.

Jonathan Schochor, one of Alston's lawyers, said he did not want to comment extensively about the settlement because he believed it was confidential.

"Everybody wanted to keep the details of this confidential," Schochor said. "Jeffrey Alston has been through enough."

Officers not disciplined

The jury also found in June that Baltimore police Sgt. Lewis Yamin and Officer Mark Warble caused the neck injuries that rendered Alston a quadriplegic. Yamin and Warble were not disciplined, Tyler said. Agent Michael Gentile was found to have acted with malice and negligence during the arrest but was not held liable for the injuries.

The officers contended that Alston freed himself from a seat belt in a police van and repeatedly rammed his head into a plastic window that separates police from passengers.

During the trial, Dr. Adrian Barbul, a trauma surgeon at Sinai Hospital, ruled out that contention, an attorney for Alston said earlier this year. The surgeon said Alston had no external head injuries when he was taken to the hospital's emergency room.

The case started Nov. 3, 1997, when Alston, driving a BMW, was stopped for speeding in the 4800 block of Reisterstown Road. Northwestern District Officer Arnold McDonald said he initially wanted to issue Alston a ticket but took him into custody after smelling alcohol on the man's breath.

In the lawsuit, Alston alleged that three additional officers arrived at the scene and that he "was handcuffed, put in leg irons, strip searched, put in a headlock/choke hold and then thrown head-first" into the back of a police van.

History of arrests

At the time, police said Alston had given them an incorrect name and address. Court records showed that he had a long history of arrests, mostly for drug charges, but no convictions.

The suit said that as a result of "this violent attack ... without any legal justification or provocation," Alston sustained permanent injuries, including a fracture of his cervical spine, a spinal cord injury and weakness in all four limbs. McDonald was later dropped from the case, leaving the other three officers and the city as defendants.

Alston's lawyers initially sought $60 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

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