If the beating of Rodney G. King had not been videotaped and if the not guilty verdicts in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of striking him had not sparked a riot, his civil suit against the city might have been settled long ago.
But there is nothing else like the King case, legal experts said Wednesday, no comparable incident and no apparent precedent for easily determining how much money, if any, would be appropriate to compensate him for that March night in 1991.
So many extraneous factors enter into the equation of the racially charged case--King's subsequent brushes with the law, the pending federal trial of the accused officers, the prospect of further unrest--that many lawyers say the standard method for assessing the severity of his injuries has become almost irrelevant.
"I think just about any trial lawyer in the country, whether on the plaintiff's or defendant's side, would agree on what the case is worth if the name (was) blank instead of King," said Thomas J. Feeley, a private attorney who is defending Sgt. Stacy Koon in the civil lawsuit. "But in this case, it's hard to say what is reasonable for any of the parties in the negotiations to expect. This is truly one of a kind."
Even though many of those other factors have no bearing on the merits of the lawsuit, experts say, they are all part of the process of deciding the right thing to do.
"This is not just a case of compensating him for physical injuries and emotional distress," said Michael H. Shapiro, a USC professor of law. "Cases like this are designed to deter, denounce, educate and teach."
King's attorney played the first card months ago, suggesting that the Altadena motorist should be awarded $1 million for each of the 56 baton blows he suffered. After the violence that erupted this spring, King and the city attorney began negotiations that resulted in a $5.9-million deal. But that collapsed on Tuesday when the City Council rejected the settlement, instead offering to guarantee King $1.75 million over the next 20 years--a proposal he promptly rejected.
Council members said they made their latest offer after numerous attorneys and judges told them that a brutality case ending in injuries such as King's normally would bring a jury award of between $500,000 and $750,000. Given the notoriety and ramifications of the beating, the council decided it was appropriate to nearly triple that amount.
"This is not a trip-and-fall case in Hollywood--this is the Rodney King case," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "That's why we offered 2 1/2 times what every lawyer in this town said it was worth."
However, King's attorney, Steven A. Lerman, contended that the council had failed to take into account all of the circumstances of his client's beating and accused officials of "gross insensitivity" in making what he described as a paltry offer.
John C. Burton, an attorney representing one of the passengers in King's car, accused the city of negotiating in bad faith and withdrawing support for the $5.9-million agreement as part of a ploy to embarrass King and his lawyer.
"This is really the second beating of Rodney King," Burton said. "They have publicly humiliated him. It's a very ominous development."
The largest personal-injury award ever paid by the city involved a former Coliseum groundskeeper who was shot by an off-duty police officer in 1987 and left a paraplegic. Adelaido Altamirano was awarded $8.75 million by a jury, but accepted a $5.5-million settlement last year rather than risk losing the judgment on appeal.
Most of the other liability cases in which the city has agreed to multimillion-dollar settlements have involved plaintiffs who died, suffered brain damage or were left confined to a wheelchair. In many of those incidents, the injuries were sustained during traffic accidents in which the city was accused of negligence.
Attorney Stephen Yagman, who has won numerous brutality judgments against the city, said any injuries suffered in the incident should not be the predominant factor in determining a settlement. Rather, he said, the dollar amount should be based on the signal that the city wants to send.
"There is no other case like this and there never will be," said Yagman, who believes the King case could draw as much as $10 million from a jury. "It is an opportunity for the city of Los Angeles to say: This is really terrible, it never should have happened and we're really sorry."
King's case is further complicated, experts say, by the fact that his injuries were suffered at the hands of police officers accused of acting criminally. Some attorneys believe the prospects for King's civil lawsuit were hurt when the officers were found not guilty in April by a Simi Valley jury. But there is still another criminal case pending against them in U.S. District Court that must be completed before the lawsuit can go to trial.
Meanwhile, King has had four other scrapes with the law since the beating, none of which resulted in the filing of charges. Two of the incidents--a drunk driving arrest and an altercation with his wife--occurred this summer, after the City Council had already begun debating the proposed settlement.
Although negotiations in civil lawsuits are often largely about posturing and rhetoric, with neither side eager to be pinned down to a specific dollar figure, efforts to find a compromise in the King case seem to have hit an impasse.
King's lawyer said he was especially frustrated because he believed that a deal had been struck with the city attorney to settle the case for $5.9 million--an amount that the city attorney had endorsed to avoid a long and costly trial.
The city attorney's office confirmed that officials had agreed to a proposed settlement with King. But they said all such agreements are subject to approval by the City Council, which has responsibility for authorizing the payment of any municipal funds exceeding $15,000.
"There was an agreement reached and it was recommended to the City Council," said Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, supervisor of the police litigation unit. "Everything was done in good faith . . . but they have the final say."
After learning of the proposed settlement in late June, the council asked for additional details on the extent of King's injuries, which some officials contended were not as severe as originally believed. By the time council members met again Tuesday to consider the agreement, "it was pretty evident that it was dead on arrival," Yaroslavsky said.
During the hourlong meeting, Yaroslavsky proposed giving King a lump sum of $250,000 and putting $1 million in an investment fund that would pay him about $75,000 annually for the rest of his life. Should the 27-year-old King die early, his heirs would be guaranteed payments for 20 years, amounting to $1.75 million. The proposal was approved 9 to 3.
"I don't fault the city attorney for recommending" the $5.9-million settlement, Yaroslavsky said. "We wanted him to come back with a what-would-it-take-to-settle-the-case. That was the best he could do. It's not his fault. It's a very sensitive case."