City vows tougher stance on negligence suits, better risk management
By Ted Carter
People who file slip-and-fall accident suits or other negligence claims against the City of Miami will be getting invitations from City Hall to bring it on.
The first invitation goes to Lylliamy Y. Garcia. She sued the city on a negligence claim relating to a slip and fall but received a thumbs down from commissioners Jan. 9 on an offer to settle the suit for $43,000. Commissioners balked even though City Attorney Jorge Fernandez advised them that Ms. Garcia's accident-related medical bills exceeded the proposed settlement amount.
The non-settle stance, commissioners say, stems from their fear that the city has become an easy mark and tends to overpay on settlements. They want to reverse that by contesting claims that would otherwise be routinely approved for settlement.
But commissioners also want to be more confident that the city's administration is doing enough to ensure people are not harmed on city-maintained property.
"The city needs to be more pro-active in avoiding liability," Commissioner Angel Gonzalez said. He cited a hazardous piece of sidewalk he encountered over a three-year stretch outside the former Pharmacia Rogue on Northwest Seventh Street. "I don't know how many [people] were going into that drugstore and fell on that sidewalk."
Commissioner Tomás Regalado said he knows of at least three people who fell there. That's because it is in his district and he wrote e-mails to city officials after each mishap urging repairs of the sidewalk.
Lawyers for the victims cited the unheeded cyber pleas in their claims against the city, Mr. Regalado said.
"The city had to settle three cases because of my e-mails," he said, noting his frustration the sidewalk was not fixed before the series of accidents. "The lawyers would say, "Look, the city knew it was broken but didn't fix it.'"
There's been "no focus at all" on preventing accidents, Mr. Regalado claimed.
Mr. Gonzalez said he's been sending e-mails on deteriorated sidewalks for years. But it's not just the old sidewalks that can cause problems, he said.
The city needs to be sure that sidewalk repair work and new sidewalk construction are done right, and pavement is not left cracked and uneven. He said a woman came to him the other day with photos of a new sidewalk with uneven pavement. The contractor had refused to level it, Mr. Gonzalez said.
"We need to make sure we do what we need to do" to ensure safe sidewalks, he said.
Meanwhile, the city may be choosing the wrong case on which to take a stand against settlements. At least that's the indication from City Attorney Fernandez.
That Mrs. Garcia has already spent more on medical bills than the $43,000 settlement offer could cause a jury to be sympathetic to her, he said. "For that reason, we believe it may be a good settlement," Mr. Fernandez added.
If the city loses the case, its liability could exceed $100,000, he said.
The city attorney said most of the cases brought to city commissioners for approval are for settlements of $20,000 or less.
Mr. Fernandez's staff is compiling a report for the commission on the number of settlements and settlement payouts that have been made recently.
Mr. Sarnoff, a private practice lawyer, said he thinks the city is too generous in settlement payouts. He said good cases get settled for 30 cents on the dollar amount of the negligence claim, but "we have a tendency to settle for 70 cents on the dollar."
Mr. Fernandez did not dispute Mr. Sarnoff. "I concur," he said. "I think there is room for improvement on our part."