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Assessing damages: a formula for outrage

By a score of about 9 to 1, readers who e-mailed me about Los Angeles firefighter Tennie Pierce and the dog food story were in agreement on one thing: $2.7 million was an outrageous sum for a couple of bites of Alpo.

That’s how much the Los Angeles City Council approved paying Pierce to settle the lawsuit he filed after the hazing incident. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed it, and flip-flopping council members backed down -- but not before taxpayers were ready to wring their necks.

“I wonder if any of the Los Angeles City Council members have ever watched an episode of ‘Survivor’ or ‘Fear Factor,’ ” said Dorothy Miller of Playa del Rey, who has watched people eat worms and much worse. “If the [council] would award me $2.7 MILLION I would eat a CAN of this dog food -- no, maybe a CASE of it!”

So how exactly did City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo’s office do the math that got them to $2.7 million -- a price high enough to cost Los Angeles Fire Department Chief William Bamattre his job Friday?

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I called the figure “robust” in my Wednesday column, even as I warned it could go higher at trial. The next day, Delgadillo’s office invited me to meet with the attorney who handled the case and will now go to trial in March, unless there’s a new settlement before then.

Chief Assistant City Atty. Gary Geuss says Pierce’s case was a can of worms for the city. There was evidence that the black firefighter was retaliated against after complaining and that he’d been intentionally humiliated in a department with a well-documented history of discrimination and ridiculous hazing rituals. So the city might be on the hook for a payout, even if a jury didn’t buy the claim of racial bias.

But Geuss also saw some holes in Pierce’s portrayal of himself as a victim. For one thing, as the city attorney’s office prepared its case, it kept receiving photos of Pierce participating in crude hazing events from years past.

Several photos were sent anonymously over the course of a few months, and Geuss realized they showed that Pierce was no angel himself.

There was even a question as to whether he had lied under oath, having insisted in a deposition that he never participated in shaving a colleague’s genitals. One of the pictures seemed to show him preparing to do just that, but his attorney countered that Pierce was photographed at a staged event and never actually shaved anyone.

Were the photos strong enough to reject the lawsuit out of hand? Probably not, but they might be enough to keep any payout reasonable.

There also was the matter of Pierce’s nickname. He went by the handle “Big Dog,” which might serve as an explanation -- other than racism -- as to why three white ignoramuses, including two captains, conspired to slip dog food into Pierce’s spaghetti two years ago.

“I am known as one of the cheapest people in the world, and I hate paying money on these cases,” says Geuss, who told the City Council about the photos and recommended that they reject Pierce’s claim for $3.8 million.

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The council complied, but then the case went to a mediator who didn’t think the photos were relevant enough to deny Pierce a victory in court. The man had unwittingly eaten dog food and felt degraded, the mediator emphasized. A jury was likely to find that revolting, added the retired judge, an Orthodox Jew who said he was once disgusted after realizing he had unwittingly eaten something with pork in it.

Geuss also knew that in Pierce’s case, the specific intent of his tormentors wouldn’t carry as much legal weight as how he reacted to it.

“The mediator said Pierce would be a good witness, his wife would be good and his daughter was going to get on the stand and start crying,” says Geuss.

Still, Geuss said there was no way he was forking over $4 million for two bites of dog food, even if Pierce honestly believed the act was racially motivated.

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But Geuss also knew there was a considerable risk in going to court, given all the publicity about the Animal House culture at the L.A. Fire Department, and given his study of recent racial bias verdicts at jury trials in and around the city.

In one case that went to trial two years ago, an L.A. cop got $4.1 million in a racial discrimination and retaliation case despite having made his own disparaging racial remarks.

Juries tend to jump at the chance to stick it to employers, Geuss said. When prospective jurors are asked if any of them have had issues with their bosses, “About 90% of the hands go up.”

Geuss began doing the math. If the city went to court and lost, Pierce would probably get $1.3 million to $1.6 million in lost wages and benefits, up to $1 million in attorney’s fees and no telling how much in additional damages. There’d be more damaging publicity ahead, he knew, on similar cases involving the L.A. Fire Department, including one in which a black recruit accuses her colleagues of putting urine in her mouthwash.

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Geuss said Pierce’s attorney, Genie Harrison, insisted she wouldn’t accept a settlement lower than $3 million, but after several rounds of negotiations, each accepted the mediator’s recommendation of $2.7 million.

Geuss took the number to the City Council, which gave 11-1 approval.

Then came John and Ken.

The KFI-AM (640) talk show hosts ridiculed the settlement and began posting photos of Pierce’s hazing activities, which included smearing condiments on colleagues.

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In one photo, Pierce is shown at what appears to be another idiotic hazing session in which someone is wearing a white sheet with the words “Oy Vey! I’m Gay” printed on it. Geuss hadn’t seen that photo when he was working out the settlement proposal, but I’d bet $2.7 million he’ll be waving it around at a trial that focuses on the issue of bias.

As I said last week, fair-minded people can disagree about whether Pierce was a victim of racial discrimination. The bigger shame is that city leaders tolerated such deplorable antics for so long, and the hope is that this debacle will finally bring an end to them.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez


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