The Los Angeles City Council agreed Friday to pay $6.6 million to the family of a woman killed by a speeding police car, the largest amount the city has ever paid to resolve a police traffic collision.
Crashes in which officers are partly or entirely to blame have emerged as an intractable and costly problem for the city. Forced to either settle the lawsuits that commonly arise from the accidents or fight them in court, the city now has spent about $30 million in negotiated payouts and verdicts in about 400 LAPD traffic-related lawsuits over the last decade, according to city records. Dozens of pending cases remain.
"We have no choice," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Amid increasing concern about officers' poor or brazen driving, Los Angeles Police Department officials announced plans this year to improve the way it investigates serious crashes. The department also is looking into whether it should revamp the way it keeps track of and penalizes officers with poor driving skills.
Friday's payment stems from a night in April 2010 when 27-year-old Jovanna Lugo's car was broadsided by a police vehicle driven by Officer Richard Brubaker as she pulled out of her Sylmar driveway. Brubaker and his partner, who were responding to a report of a possible stolen car about two miles away, had not turned on the car's emergency lights and so were not legally allowed to be speeding. Other drivers and a reconstruction of the crash, however, estimated the police vehicle was going about 70 mph, twice the posted speed limit, according to a lawyer for Lugo's family and a confidential city report about the incident obtained by The Times.
Two witnesses insisted the headlights on the police car were turned off as well, the report stated. When asked why the headlight switch was found in the off position, Brubaker said he had turned the headlights off after the crash. The light switch, however, was covered with a layer of undisturbed powder that was released into the car's cabin when the airbags deployed, indicating that no one had touched it after the crash, the report said.
The officers claimed that Lugo had caused the accident by trying to make a U-turn. But in urging the council to accept the settlement, an attorney for the city said in the report that there was no evidence to support such a claim.
The city's lawyer cautioned the council that turning down the settlement with Lugo's husband and 4-year-old son would bring serious risks. Hearing the crash, Lugo's husband had rushed outside and watched his wife die, and a jury would feel sympathetic toward her young son, the report noted. "If the jury finds the defendants liable for wrongful death, the jury will award a figure in the multiple millions of dollars," Deputy City Atty. John Wright wrote in the report.
Lawyers for Lugo's family had not yet learned that the LAPD's internal inquiry concluded that Brubaker was "negligent," had broken traffic laws and "had contributed to the loss of life," Wright wrote. If they had, he said, the information would be used in court to prove the officer's responsibility. Wright went on to say that the LAPD's credibility would be attacked during a trial in light of the "limited quality" of the investigation the department conducted into the crash.
None of the police interviews with witnesses to the crash were tape recorded, Wright said. And the witness who said the police car's headlights were off prior to the crash was not interviewed. Brubaker did not respond to an email seeking comment.
It was Lugo's death that spurred LAPD officials to reconsider the way the department investigates serious accidents in which officers are suspected of negligence or other significant misconduct, police officials have said. Prior to the crash, such investigations were treated like misconduct inquiries, but the department now investigates them as it does officer-involved shootings. In shooting inquiries, officers are separated from each other at the scene to avoid collusion, and special teams of detectives spend months gathering evidence and witness testimony. An independent oversight panel ultimately rules on whether the officers' actions were justified.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the Budget Committee, described the payment as appropriate given "the tragic circumstances" of the Lugo case. Krekorian plans to call LAPD officials before his committee to explain what they are doing to lower the department's risk of lawsuits — a session that will focus, in part, on accidents involving police vehicles.
"We're going to have that explicit conversation," he said after Friday's vote.
The case mirrored another fatal crash The Times highlighted, in which a 25-year-old woman was killed in 2009. The officers involved claimed that they were driving between 40 and 45 mph, but after data from an onboard computer showed the car had been traveling nearly 80 mph, the city settled last year with the woman's family for $5 million.
Brubaker was not seriously punished by the department despite the finding that he was to blame. He received an admonishment, according to Wright's report.