New York City Agrees to Pay Family of Eric Garner $5.9 Million

Mr. Garner and his wife, Esaw, during a family vacation in 2011. (Photo via nytimes.com)

New York City reached a settlement with the family of Eric Garner on Monday, agreeing to pay $5.9 million to resolve a wrongful death claim over his killing by the police on Staten Island last July, the city comptroller and a lawyer for the family said.

The agreement, reached a few days before the anniversary of Mr. Garner’s death, headed off one legal battle even as a federal inquiry into the killing and several others at the state and local level remain open and could provide a further accounting of how he died.

Still, the settlement was a pivotal moment in a case that has engulfed the city since the afternoon of July 17, 2014, when two officers approached Mr. Garner as he stood unarmed on a sidewalk, and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. One of the officers used a chokehold — prohibited by the Police Department — to subdue him, and that was cited by the medical examiner as a cause of Mr. Garner’s death.

The killing of Mr. Garner, 43, followed by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August, set off a national debate about policing actions in minority communities and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — repeated 11 times, became a national rallying cry. A Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who used the chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, fueled weeks of demonstrations. The protests eased after two police officers in Brooklyn were fatally shot in December by a man who said he acted to avenge Mr. Garner’s death.

The killings of the officers shook the city anew, deepening tensions between the police and Mayor Bill de Blasio and slowing a push to enact a host of criminal justice reforms. Last year, Mr. Garner’s relatives, including his widow, Esaw Garner, and his mother, Gwen Carrfiled a notice of claim— a procedural step that must precede a lawsuit — against the city. In the notice, they said were seeking $75 million in damages. Since then, the family has been in talks with the comptroller’s office.

“Mr. Garner’s death is a touchstone in our city’s history and in the history of the entire nation,” the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, said in a telephone interview late on Monday. “Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure.”

The family had given the city a deadline of Friday, the anniversary of the death, to come to an agreement or the relatives would move forward with the lawsuit, Jonathan C. Moore, the lawyer for Mr. Garner’s family, said. (In wrongful-death cases, the claimants have two years to file suit.)

Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. Mr. Garner died a year ago at age 43, and his family had sought $75 million in a claim against New York. (Credit: Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times)

The agreement came after months of halting negotiations. It was among the biggest settlements reached so far as part of a strategy by Mr. Stringer, to settle major civil rights claims even before a lawsuit is filed. He has said the aim is to save taxpayers the expense, and families the pain, of a long legal process. He said five lawyers from his office were involved in the negotiations, which ended on Monday.

But the resolution of the legal claim against the city did not provide any greater clarity on the actions of the officers that day or on the policing strategies that have come under criticism in the year that has followed. The relatives of Mr. Garner, along with Mr. Moore, are expected to discuss the settlement at a news conference scheduled for Tuesday morning at the Harlem offices of the National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

On Saturday, Mr. Garner’s family is expected to lead a rally outside the Brooklyn offices of the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York to call for a federal case to be brought against the officers involved in Mr. Garner’s death.

“This is not about people getting money,” Mr. Sharpton said on Monday. “This is about justice. We’ve got to restructure our police departments and how we deal with policing nationwide.”

The city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, citing the chokehold and the compression of Mr. Garner’s chest by other officers who held him down.

Several inquiries into Mr. Garner’s death were still pending, including investigations by the United States attorney’s office, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and state health officials, who are looking into the actions of emergency medical responders in treating Mr. Garner.

The Police Department has concluded its internal investigation but has yet to say whether any officers would be disciplined.

The agreement with the city does not cover the private hospital that sent the responders, Richmond University Medical Center. As Mr. Garner lay on the ground, he was not given oxygen, and the actions of the medical responders, also captured on video, appeared disorganized. Mr. Moore said on Monday that the family had also reached a financial settlement with the hospital before any suit had been filed; the amount of that agreement was confidential.

“It’s not ‘mission accomplished,’ but at least it brings a measure of justice to the family,” Mr. Moore said.

Mr. Stringer reached a $6.4 million deal with David Ranta, who was imprisoned for 23 years after a wrongful murder conviction; Mr. Ranta had sought $150 million. A deal was also reached for $2.25 million with the family of Jerome Murdough, who died in an overheated cell at the Rikers Island jail complex, to settle their $25 million claim against the city.

But while the approach spares the city and those hurt by it from protracted legal fights, it has come under criticism for sidelining experienced lawyers at the Law Department who might better gauge the city’s legal liability.

“The determination of appropriate damage levels is a complex, nuanced process,” said Victor A. Kovner, a former city corporation counsel. “The notion that the comptroller, without the benefit of that experience, seeks to make these resolutions on his own is in my experience grandstanding and against the city’s interest.”

Mr. Kovner said settlements in wrongful death and police brutality cases must take into account the pain and suffering of the person as well as future earnings and financial damage to the family. In the case of Mr. Garner, his apparent suffering in video images would have probably been a major factor in any settlement discussions.

In 2001, a suit brought by Abner Louima, a Haitian man tortured with a broomstick while in police custody at a Brooklyn precinct station house in 1997, was settled for $8.75 million; the city paid $7.125 million and the police officers’ union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which was accused of conspiring to cover up the assault, paid Mr. Louima another $1.625 million.

That agreement was reached three years into the suit brought by Mr. Louima and came after federal trials in which several officers were convicted in the attack, including one who was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Nearly five years after the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999, the city settled with his relatives for $3 million. The city settled a suit over the 2006 fatal shooting of Sean Bell for $3.25 million.

Mr. Stringer defended his approach in Mr. Garner’s case, saying it was appropriate in one of such magnitude and importance. “The work of our general counsel and the lawyers involved in this case and others has proved the quality and seriousness of the way we have looked at these cases,” he said. “We don’t settle every case that comes our way.”

article by J. David Goodman via nytimes.com

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