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Informed Opinions on Today's Topics : Lawsuit Raises Questions on Public Service

October 28, 1994|ANTONIO OLIVO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The trial in a lawsuit filed against Los Angeles City Council members because of the votes they cast in a police brutality case began Tuesday in Federal Court. The result could make council members financially liable for their votes, as well as force them to pay damages assessed against city police officers out of their own pockets.

At issue is a 1990 incident in which LAPD officers outside a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland shot and killed three men suspected in a string of robberies. It was later revealed that the guns the men were carrying were pellet guns which were not loaded.

A lawsuit was filed against former Police Chief Daryl Gates and nine of the officers on behalf of the slain men's families. Jurors found in favor of the relatives, agreeing that the police acted without provocation and that Gates was responsible for the way the department was run. The Los Angeles City Council voted to pay out of city funds the more than $44,000 in punitive damages assessed against Gates and the officers.

But a new lawsuit was filed on behalf of the daughter of one of the slain men contending that when the council members voted to use city funds to pay the damages, they approved of the officers' conduct and should share in the blame financially. Both a U.S. District Court judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have agreed that the new lawsuit is a valid one.

Should the public be allowed to sue City Council members because of the votes they cast?

Georgia Bender, past lieutenant governor, Pacific Southwest District, Mid-San Fernando Valley Optimist International:

"It borders on the ridiculous. Where will it end? If this is the state we're in, people should be afraid to be jurors or cast a vote on anything, because the system would turn against them. The police officers didn't know whether or not real guns were being pointed at them and the City Council was acting well within their jurisdiction In today's climate, everyone is forced to be so afraid of taking a stand."

Stephen Yagman, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

"The U.S District Court in L.A. and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco have ruled that the Los Angeles City Council members, in voting to cover damages for police officers in a brutality case as part of their administrative function, can be sued for having done that. It really makes no difference at all what anybody, including me, thinks about it because that's the law."

James Pearson, chief assistant city attorney for Los Angeles:

"If you are going to be held responsible for damages of this nature, there has to be an articulated case authority already on the books stating that, if you conduct a certain act, you've got a problem. Such a case is not on the books. In fact, (state law) allows government entities to pay for punitive damages assessed upon an employee if they find that the employee was acting within the course and scope of his employment, acted without malicious intent or fraud and that payment of the damages is in the best interest of that public entity. The City Council has the right to take the perspective that, given the nature of the case, damages should be paid."

Gary Schwartz, UCLA law professor:

"In general, the victims would be happy to have the city cover damages because they would be more assured of receiving their money. I guess the lawsuit wanted to punish the officers and, therefore, they received less punishment when the city voted to reimburse. State law holds, however, that an agency has the authority to cover damages (assessed against a public employee) if they believe that employee was acting in good faith."

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