A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Monday added $2.1 million in attorneys fees and trial expenses to the $5.5-million civil verdict that the city of Torrance was ordered to pay in September when a jury found that six of the city's police officers covered up for a colleague after a fatal traffic accident.
Judge Abby Soven ordered Torrance to pay $329,000 in expenses and $1.8 million in attorneys fees to the firm of Greene, Broillet, Paul, Simon & Wheeler, which represented John Rastello of San Pedro. Rastello's 19-year-old son, Kelly, died in a collision with off-duty Torrance Police Sgt. Rollo Green in 1984.
A jury awarded the judgment against Torrance and its officers after finding that the Police Department had protected Green as part of a "custom and policy" of whitewashing police misconduct. Jurors found that John Rastello's civil right to meaningful access to the courts was infringed because Torrance police officers did not thoroughly investigate the crash or order a blood-alcohol test of Green, who admitted that he had been drinking before the crash.
City Atty. Ken Nelson called the award of lawyers' fees "very, very high" and said that the compensation will become part of the city's appeal in the case, which is pending in the state Court of Appeal.
Rastello's lawyers had sought $5 million in fees, arguing that a substantial payment would encourage other lawyers to take on such complicated civil rights cases.
But Soven said that the nearly 14,000 hours that Rastello's lawyers worked on the case seemed excessive.
"It seemed to me that the case was overworked and that it became a crusade," Soven said. "I question whether there should be a payment to launch a crusade."
Brian Panish, Rastello's lead attorney, argued that he was forced to work exhaustively on the case because the city resisted attempts to obtain hundreds of internal police files.
"This case was not a crusade," Panish said. "It was a fight for economic survival."
Panish charged that the city tried to force his firm off the case by delaying and driving up trial costs, a charge that the city denies.
Panish asked the judge to double his firm's actual fees of $2.5 million, as permitted by law, to reward it for taking on a particularly risky case.
"How many other lawyers are going to take these kinds of cases, which are very important?" Panish asked. "There is just no incentive" without the award of extra pay.
Panish said his firm has not decided whether to appeal.