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I-Team: Millions of dollars paid out by local cities for lawsuits

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – When someone sues your city or town, you end up paying for it.

The 22News I-Team dug through hundreds of pages of lawsuits, and found out cities across western Massachusetts are using millions of your tax dollars to pay out large checks when they lose or settle a case.

Twelve pay-outs in Springfield in the past five years alone were larger than $100,000. One of these cases was Charles Wilhite. He was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2010. The Springfield City Council voted to compensate him with $1.4 million after he served nearly four years in jail.

296 cases have been settled by Springfield over the past five years, totaling $6.9 million.

Fiscal Year 2019
Total Settlement Claims: 55
Total Costs: $1,741,848

Fiscal Year 2018
Total Settlement Claims: 45
Total Costs: $1,107,828

Fiscal Year 2017
Total Settlement Claims: 40
Total Costs: $1,700,760

Fiscal Year 2016
Total Settlement Claims: 48
Total Costs: $633,827

Fiscal Year 2015
Total Settlement Claims: 108
Total Costs: $1,693,930

The 22News I-Team asked Springfield City Solicitor Ed Pikula how the city decides whether to go to trial or to settle.

“We would not settle a case if we thought it would be cheaper to try it,” explained Pikula. “We try to use our best judgment to make a determination of what are the probable outcomes. Based on that, we make an assessment of how much, if anything, we are willing to pay.”

Solicitor Pikula told the 22News I-Team that the City could end up having to pay for a lot more than just a settlement if a case were to go to trial.

“It’s a process – very similar to what happens in an insurance company. It’s a risk-benefit analysis. Whenever we are faced with a lawsuit, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Sometimes, we have to hire outside counsel. Sometimes, we have to hire outside experts to present evidence in a medical type of situation or engineering situation.”

Springfield has two methods when it comes to paying out judgments and settlements. There is an “emergency stabilization account” that’s accounted for in the city’s annual budget.

“It’s less than $200,000, so it covers the run-of-the-mill lawsuits,” Pikula explained.

For larger settlements, the mayor and city council have to approve moving money around to cover the costs.

Springfield isn’t the only city that spent seven-figures on payouts in the past five years. Westfield paid out almost $1.3 million in settlements. Documents obtained by the 22News I-Team show that insurance covered about one-third of that.

In Franklin County, Greenfield taxpayers have paid $34,000 in settlements.

Here are some of the largest judgments and settlements the I-Team discovered in each of these communities:

Springfield:

  • Michael Ververis was awarded $175,000 after he said he was beaten and choked during an unjustified arrest in January 2011.
  • Lucy Jones was paid out $205,678. She accused former police officer Fonald Bokyan of barging into her convenience store in June 1999, arresting her two adult children, and then beating her and her children.
  • Charles Wilhite was wrongfully convicted of murder on 2010 after he was charged with killing a man on Pine Street in 2008. He served four years in prison, and the Springfield City Council decided to compensate him $1,367,411 for the ordeal.
  • Lee Hutchins sued three Springfield officers for allegedly using excessive force against him inside his home back in January 2013. The lawsuit claims that officers pepper-sprayed him and beat him with batons. He was awarded $450,000.
  • The mother of a 15-year-old boy who was struck and killed in traffic during a confrontation with police was paid $1,000,000. According to the lawsuit, officers stopped a group of boys riding their bikes on East Columbus Ave. in July 2009. One of the officers allegedly grabbed the boy’s throat when he refused to hang up his cell phone. That act allegedly sent him into oncoming traffic, killing him.

Westfield:

  • Westfield had to pay $400,000 after allegedly failing to pay fair-market value for a property it acquired through eminent domain. The property at 429 Old Westfield Road in Granville was taken by the City of Westfield to be used for public water supply protection.
  • A Westfield Police Officer was awarded $30,000 in damages she said she suffered after alleged gender discrimination.
  • Revoli Construction Co. demanded reimbursement for deposits given to Westfield in connection with road opening permits for a water main project. This came after Westfield Police Officer Jose Torres was struck and killed while directing traffic on Pontoosic Road during this project. After the accident, Revoli finished the project but closed the road to all traffic for safety. The two parties decided to settle for $25,500 to avoid litigation, according to documents.

Greenfield:

  • A $2,974.35 settlement paid on Nov. 5, 2014
  • A $4,913.87 settlement paid on Dec. 9, 2016
  • A $6,379.28 settlement paid on Jan. 18, 2019

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