3 On Your Side Investigates: Cost of Claims - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Cost of Claims

Source: WLBT Source: WLBT
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

In the last two weeks -- from sexual harassment to racial discrimination -- we’ve seen two federal lawsuits filed against the city of Jackson.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

A 3 On Your Side investigation reveals dozens of claims filed against the city over the last three years, many of them experts say could have been prevented. False arrest, negligence, excessive force: these are just a few of the 99 claims filed against the city of Jackson since 2013.

Some may sound familiar, like the wrongful death claim involving Ruth Helen Harrion, the North Jackson woman who -- despite calling 911 -- died at the hands of a burglar after police said the dispatcher hung up.

Then there’s Tina Bianchini, the Jackson police officer fired after investigators said she fought with another officer with whom she was romantically involved.

These claims sometimes lead to lawsuits, sometimes lead to settlements, and sometimes don’t lead anywhere. In fact, only a third of the demand letters obtained by 3 On Your Side against the city of Jackson actually got filed in Hinds County Circuit Court.

Attorney Patrick Wooten with Schwartz & Associates says that percentage is a bit deceiving, though.

“If those are actually tried, that’s a relatively high number. That’s actually higher than you would normally get against a private insurance carrier," Wooten said.

In the Bianchini claim, her attorney made allegations of wrongful termination, false arrest and imprisonment, among others.

Just last week, they decided to move forward with that case.

Why should Jackson residents care?

Because claims impact the city in two major ways financially.

"The benefit of having liability insurance is that pays for the ability of an attorney to defend you," Wooten said.

But Jackson is self-insured, which means that the city attorney’s office ends up getting billed for all the hours it takes to defend these claims. Then, when a settlement’s reached, that money comes out of your pocket.

“You’re taking out money that may be used for other priorities within the city itself," Wooten said.

It essentially boils down to a city’s carelessness over time. More than half of the claims filed against the city of Jackson involved wrongful injuries.

In some cases, residents say city employees -- even JPD officers -- caused traffic accidents that injured them.

“I think they’re so overburdened sometimes that they’re rushing to accomplish A, B, and C each day. That unfortunately leads to accidents which leads to leaking money out of the budget to resolve these cases," Wooten said.

Only a handful resulted from public works issues that were never fixed: potholes, sidewalk cracks or uncovered manholes.

In fact, one woman’s claim states she received an injured ankle from falling into an uncovered manhole, and she would need half a million in compensation. That case never went to trial, but it makes you wonder how many of these claims do.

It might also make you wonder how much this costs the city of Jackson, either from settlements or rulings themselves.

“You could have a claim that’s worth a few hundred dollars, but you could also have a claim that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the severity of the injury," Wooten said.

Those 99 claims add up to more than $41 million in potential payouts, and while it’s probably safe to say the city hasn’t had to pony up that much, in a time of budget crisis, how much are these cases of possible negligence and wrongful injury costing you, the taxpayer?

We tried to answer that question by asking for those settlement agreements from the city. The city did send partial settlement information, the claims approved by city council members for the last three years.

That partial information indicates Jackson paid out around $1.4 million since 2013.

However, that information is not what WLBT asked for in public records requests dating back several weeks.

Instead, we've been told the settlement agreements themselves are not public record.

Because of that, WLBT will be taking steps to compel the city to release those agreements so you can see exactly how much these claims have cost Jackson taxpayers.

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