Late last week a federal jury in Brooklyn NY awarded $16,600,000 to a man who lost a leg after a Nassau County NY Sheriff’s Detective crushed his legs with his police cruiser when arresting him on allegations that he was making harassing phone calls his ex. In making their decision, the jury decided that the detective had acted with malice and intent when he hit the man with his cruiser to make the arrest.
Of course, when people think about police misconduct civil lawsuits, it’s this kind of case that they think about, generally because the cases where there is a large sum of money involved tend to make the most headlines and tend to alarm the public, who generally have to pay that bill one way or another. But, are all police misconduct lawsuits like this and are they as common as most people think?
Our National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) indicates that lawsuits as a result of police misconduct allegations aren’t actually as common as you would think and, when they do happen, aren’t nearly as beneficial to the victim as this one was.
In the last 10 months, the NPMSRP tracked 925 civil lawsuits regarding police misconduct reported in the media, this represents about 27% of all reports of police misconduct that were captured during that time period. What about all those other cases? As I mentioned in our Police Misconduct Victim’s Guide, getting an attorney to take a police misconduct lawsuit on is a lot more difficult than most people are led to believe.
During the same 10 month period, the NPMSRP statistical analysis indicated that, of the police misconduct lawsuits filed, only 1/3 of those resulted in an award for the plaintiff. Of the 33% of police misconduct lawsuits that resulted in a win for the victim, 74% were settled out of court and only 26% resulted in a favorable judgment for the victim.
So, police misconduct lawsuits are very difficult to win. Not only this, most police misconduct lawsuits are taken on a contingency basis since the victims are usually in debt already from the cost of defending themselves against criminal charges along with medical bills and sometimes even the loss of employment that can come from a false arrest, which occurs in many of the cases. When lawyers lose a contingency case it’s costly, they spend months developing these cases and spend a lot hiring detectives and professional witnesses like medical experts and former officers.
So, many lawyers are very selective about what cases they take, not because many of the cases don’t have merit, but because the risks of losing money on the case are greater than the potential win. This may seem like a surprise, but remember that not all cases result in large wins like the case in Nassau County. In fact, most don’t even come close.
Again, in that same 10 month period, the median award for all successful police misconduct litigation was $225,000. This means that half the cases won more than $225k and the other half won less than $225k. While whether a case was won in court or outside of court did affect the median outcome, it wasn’t as significant as you would think. Of the cases resulting in judgments the median award was $330,000 and settled cases had a median award of $207,500.
So, how much of that do lawyers take home? Well, it varies. Sometimes lawyers win legal costs as part of the settlement or judgment, but on a contingency basis they can stand to win a portion of the total award depending on the contract agreed upon between the victim and lawyer taking the case. In general, from my own experience, I’ve seen these range from a low 35% up to 60%, but generally stick around 40%.
So, an average judgment payout for a lawyer is around $133k, but remember that attorneys usually work on cases for several years when they are forced to go to trial, which is why they tend to prefer settlement offers and even tend to write this into contracts by taking a lower percentage cut when a case settles as opposed to a win, even though the payout tends to be less.
But, this isn’t the total cost of police misconduct litigation as the city has to pay it’s lawyers too, and they often turn to outside help to defend themselves against police misconduct litigation and that can be quite costly. In fact, more often than not the legal fees the government pays out are more expensive than the awarded amount, some documented cases indicate that the cost of a $300k judgment can cost taxpayers over a million dollars when all is said and done. Even when we don’t count legal fees and other associated costs of police misconduct litigation, the total cost to taxpayers over the last 10 months has been $245,606,510 in known settlements and judgments alone, though, over 10% of awards are unspecified due to non-disclosure settlement agreements.
There you have it, police misconduct lawsuits are a lot less common than you think, lawyers don’t come out of the woodwork whenever police misconduct happens, and the victims of police misconduct probably don’t win nearly as much as you think, despite what police organizations might try to tell you. This is why victims of police misconduct really need to understand what to expect once they become victims, because it’s not as easy as most people think to get compensation for the harms done by police misconduct.