The city has agreed to pay $1.24 million to settle a lawsuit by a South Philadelphia man who was paralyzed from the neck down last year after a police van in which he was riding stopped short, hurling him headfirst into an interior wall.
Documents noting the settlement and closing Calvin Saunders’ federal civil rights suit were filed recently in U.S. District Court. The settlement amount was confirmed yesterday by the City Solicitor’s Office.It is the largest payment to an individual for injuries stemming from actions by Philadelphia police in three years.
Saunders, 23, was arrested April 1, 1997, at 19th and Pierce Streets in South Philadelphia by officers who believed the 1994 Acura Legend he was driving was stolen. He was cut during a scuffle with officers and was placed, handcuffed, in a police van.
Saunders’ attorney, Fortunato N. Perri Jr., said yesterday that he and Saunders’ family were “very pleased with the settlement, considering the nature of the case.”
Perri said Saunders, now living with his mother in South Philadelphia, “has made no progress since he sustained the injury.” Perri said Saunders had no feeling below the neck and was expected to remain in that condition.
The settlement involves no admission of wrongdoing on the part of city officials or the six police officers involved in Saunders’ arrest.
The payment will allow the city to avoid the possibility of a large monetary award by a jury. In court documents, city officials estimated that Saunders could have won a judgment of between $4 million and $10 million.
Saunders’ lawsuit sought $6 million. It estimated his lost future earnings at $250,000 to $500,000 and the cost of his lifetime medical care at $4 million to $8 million. Had the city lost at trial, a jury could also have awarded additional damages – with no limit – to compensate Saunders for pain and suffering, and his lawyers could have recovered legal fees.
City Solicitor Stephanie L. Franklin-Suber said yesterday that she was pleased with the settlement. “While we would have had very strong defenses and felt we would ultimately prevail, you do take a risk going to a jury,” she said.
After Saunders was arrested, he tried to flee, was caught and, after struggling with an officer, was taken to the First Police District headquarters.
There, court records say, a sergeant noticed that Saunders’ ear was bleeding and ordered two Emergency Patrol Wagon officers to take him to the nearby St. Agnes Medical Center.
Saunders later told police investigators that during the 10-minute drive to the hospital, the van stopped suddenly and he hurtled headfirst into an interior wall, landing on the floor.
Saunders said he felt a sharp pain in his neck and was unable to move his arms and legs.
Saunders’ suit contended that the injury was aggravated when, despite his complaints that he could not move, the officers hauled him out of the van and tried to make him stand before taking him into the hospital.
Police contended that the drive to the hospital was uneventful – that there were no sudden stops and no unusual noises from Saunders in back. Police also denied trying to make Saunders stand.
An Internal Affairs investigation found that the two arresting officers had used excessive force but that the force did not contribute to his paralysis.
The inquiry also found that the officers who took Saunders to the First District should have immediately taken him to the hospital for treatment of his ear and that the second team of officers should have immobilized Saunders when he complained that he could not move.
The Police Department yesterday refused to disclose whether disciplinary action was taken against the officers.
The Saunders settlement is the largest since the city agreed in 1995 to pay $2.2 million to Carlos McLeod, a 29-year-old New York man. McLeod was shot three times by a police officer in 1992 as he tried to help a Nicetown store clerk wounded in a robbery. He was left paralyzed from the waist down.
The officer who fired the shots contended that McLeod had pointed a gun at him. Police found a gun at the scene, but the gun did not have McLeod’s fingerprints. An Internal Affairs probe exonerated the officer.