In its first public offer to settle the police brutality lawsuit brought by Rodney G. King, the Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to guarantee him at least $1.75 million, but King's attorney blasted the proposal and vowed to take the civil case to trial.
After meeting in closed-door session for nearly an hour, the council rejected an earlier $5.9-million settlement sought by King. Instead, council members offered to award him a lump sum of $250,000 and establish an investment fund that would pay him $75,000 annually for the rest of his life.
Should he die early, the heirs of 27-year-old King would be assured payment for 20 years, amounting to $1.75 million.
"Some people might think that was not enough and others might think it was too much," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "We think it's a generous and fair offer--generous to Mr. King and fair to the taxpayers."
However, King's lawyer, Steven A. Lerman, accused the City Council of showing disregard for his client and countless other police abuse victims who seek compensation for their injuries. He said he was particularly angry that the council rejected the proposed $5.9-million settlement to his federal civil rights lawsuit, which he said was agreed to by his office and the city attorney after long days of negotiations beginning soon after the spring riots.
"It now appears that the City Council had no intention all along to honor the result of our negotiations," Lerman said, "but instead to deceptively waste everyone's time and energy, and now seize upon a self-inspired moment of political opportunity to act tough.
"It's a political gesture by those on the council who would seek to ignore the good faith that was supposed to be underlying the negotiations," he added, "and it certainly is indicative of a gross insensitivity of those members of the council to Mr. King."
Lerman himself would have received no money under the City Council's settlement offer. Rather, he would have had to petition the court for his fees.
The strained negotiations come as the city is deeply mired in its struggle to rebuild from the upheaval that followed the not guilty verdicts in the trial of the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating King. It also comes in a time of severe fiscal crisis, with city funds recently slashed by more than $180 million and officials bracing for even more cuts.
There is clearly a sense among council members that it is to the city's advantage--in terms of its emotional recovery and financial health--to settle the case rather than endure a long and expensive trial. But what constitutes a fair settlement remains a subject of debate.
Tuesday's offer was approved by a 9-3 vote, sources said, with three council members absent. The council spent about an hour behind closed doors calmly discussing the implications of the racially charged case and comparing other costly liability judgments against the city.
During the meeting, the city attorney's office said a survey of private attorneys suggested that a brutality case ending in injuries such as King's normally would bring a jury award of $500,000 to $750,000. But given the attention surrounding the King beating, the council thought it would be appropriate to essentially triple that amount.
"I defy anybody to tell me that, given the circumstances, that's not a generous offer," said Yaroslavsky, who voted with the majority. "We're trying to do what's right."
Council President John Ferraro went one step further, saying that King's case probably would have resulted in a lower amount, "but because of the prominence of the case, we felt we should offer more."
Ferraro added that since reports surfaced in June that King was seeking a settlement of $5 million to $8 million, "I've had a number of people say we should go to trial and that he shouldn't be paid anything."
But Councilwoman Rita Walters, who joined Councilmen Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike Hernandez in opposing the offer, described the proposed settlement as an affront.
"I don't feel it adequately compensated Mr. King for the horror he has experienced, for the pain and the suffering," Walters said. "I am personally disappointed."
Ridley-Thomas said he was less troubled by the amount of the offer than the haste with which he believed it was reached. He said attorneys first unveiled the payment plan in a verbal presentation to the council during Tuesday's closed-door session.
"This matter is too significant to make a decision of this sort without at least giving it more thought," Ridley-Thomas said. "My concern is to be quite thoughtful about the message we are sending."
Lerman said he will not attempt to further negotiate a settlement with the city. Rather, he said, he plans to take his civil rights lawsuit to trial in U.S. District Court after the conclusion of the federal criminal trial against the four officers accused in the March, 1991, King beating. The criminal trial is scheduled to begin next February.
As for his client, Lerman and his associates said King reacted with "disbelief and disappointment" at the city's proposal. Lerman explained the city's offer in a meeting with King in his Beverly Hills law office Tuesday afternoon, and they decided to reject it after little discussion.
"He thought the City Council had really wanted to settle his case," Lerman said of King. "So he is surprised and somewhat disappointed. But he remains resolved to make the legal system work."
Although such negotiations are usually kept secret, Tuesday's offer was made public under a federal rule that requires settlement proposals to be filed in U.S. District Court if the case is pending there. Shortly after the beating, King filed a lawsuit against the city, and his attorney suggested that he should be awarded $1 million for each of the 56 baton swings leveled at the Altadena motorist.
Under the city's offer, $250,000 would have been paid directly to King and $1 million would have gone into an investment fund expected to yield about $75,000 a year, said Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, supervisor of the police litigation unit.
The payments would have been guaranteed for 20 years, assuring King or his estate of at least $1.75 million, regardless of how long he lives, Vincent said. But the beating victim could have collected as much as $3.3 million if he reaches 68--the age to which city officials say he is statistically expected to live.
Times staff writer Jesse Katz contributed to this story.