The city of Wildwood agreed to pay Tony Salvatore, a former candidate for city council, $295,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging his First Amendment rights were violated by a city ordinance forbidding any signs on public property, including sidewalks.
Police, citing the ordinance, prevented the candidate from holding a “Salvatore for Wildwood” campaign sign on a city sidewalk during his 2018 bid for the council.
According to Wildwood’s mayor, the city’s insurance company advised the city to settle the case to avoid a potentially more costly trial. The settlement was announced this week.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $5 million the city of St. Louis agreed to pay an undercover Black police officer who was injured by white officers during the Jason Stockley protests in 2017. The settlement also was disclosed this week.
Other lawsuits are still pending against the city, involving citizens who claim they were mistreated by police during the protests. More settlements are likely. That’s nothing new. St. Louis has paid out millions in settlements over the past several years in connection with claims of police misconduct or civil rights violations.
Five million dollars is a lot of money, but it’s small change when you consider the $10.25 million St. Louis County agreed to pay one of its police officers to settle a workplace discrimination verdict last February. It was the sensible thing to do after a jury previously awarded the officer $20 million after hearing evidence that he had been passed over for promotion because he was gay.
Each year, cities, counties and states spend billions of dollars fighting and settling lawsuits, involving alleged police misconduct, injuries on public property and a range of other legal challenges.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt made news earlier this month when he boasted the state only spent $6.6 million to settle lawsuits in 2020. He’s entitled to gloat — the state paid out $24.2 million the year before. That was better than 2018 when the state paid out nearly $29 million.
The 20 U.S. cities and counties with the biggest police departments have paid out over $2 billion since 2015 for alleged misconduct and civil rights violations, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis.
Smaller jurisdictions aren’t immune from lawsuits and when they get hit with a big verdict, it can be devastating. The town of Hillview, Kentucky, filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after it was slammed with a judgment over a property deal that amounted to $15 million with interest.
In many cases, like the settlement in Wildwood, insurance covers the cost of the legal payouts. But not always. Sometimes cities are forced to issue bonds to cover the debts. Taxpayers, however, ultimately absorb the legal costs to fight or settle legal claims through higher insurance premiums and deductibles. That’s money that could be used for services and programs.
Claims and lawsuits are an everyday occurrence for cities large and small across the country, as well as counties and states. It’s a problem, and it’s not getting any better.
More and more, governmental entities are evaluated on how they prevent and manage these lawsuits. Better run jurisdictions tend to have fewer claims. Some are unavoidable but the fewer, the better for any jurisdiction because lawsuits drain budgets.
We’re fortunate. There hasn’t been a rash of high-dollar settlements involving governmental entities in Franklin County. It’s not a chronic problem like it is in other places.