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City to pay woman hit in ’10

Tue., June 12, 2012

$2.25 million deal awaits council’s OK

Spokane officials have tentatively approved a $2.25 million settlement to a woman who became paralyzed from the waist down after she was struck by a city vehicle in 2010.

The deal will be considered by the Spokane City Council next week – less than a month after the council approved a $1.67 million settlement with the family of Otto Zehm, a Spokane man who died in 2006 after he was beaten, shocked and hogtied by police.

Patricia A. Searl, 71, was walking across Northwest Boulevard at Buckeye Avenue on Oct. 25, 2010, when she was struck by a city-owned pickup driven by city engineering services employee Daniel J. Hirst. Police determined that Hirst should be cited for failing to yield to a pedestrian despite pressure from city risk managers who reportedly encouraged the investigating officer to consider ways to help protect against potential litigation.

The city will pay about $915,000 of the Searl settlement. The rest will be paid by the city’s insurance carrier, Princeton Excess and Surplus Lines Insurance Co. The deal includes attorney fees. The city is not admitting fault in the settlement.

City Councilman Mike Fagan said Monday that the deal appears to be a fair resolution of the case.

“Obviously, it’s a sad situation,” Fagan said. “It’s good to know that she has a means to take care of herself for the rest of her life.”

Breean Beggs, one of three attorneys representing Searl, said Monday that a joint statement from both sides “is forthcoming, and that is the limit of what I can comment on about the case.”

Spokane Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said the city’s portion of the settlement will come from reserves set aside for liability. That fund, he said, will have about $9 million left after the city pays its portions of the Zehm and Searl settlements.

According to documents obtained by lawyers representing Searl, risk managers working for the city were able to influence the removal of certain details from the official press release about the crash and reportedly sought to influence the police investigation.

Cooley is leading a review of the city risk management department. Earlier this year, Mayor David Condon fired Risk Manager Pam Schroeder, and City Attorney Nancy Isserlis fired an assistant city attorney who was heavily involved in the Zehm case and risk management, Rocky Treppiedi.

“Both the Zehm and Searl cases and recent action on other litigation actions involving the city has indicated the need for sweeping changes in how we handle risk management in the city,” Cooley said.

Cooley said the risk management review should be finished by July 15. He declined to comment on whether the city will continue to contract with the company it uses to perform some risk management duties, Alternative Service Concepts, but said he expects changes to be “dramatic.”

Searl was walking slowly and with the aid of a cane following a recent injury when she tried to cross Northwest Boulevard. According to witnesses, three of the four Northwest Boulevard lanes of traffic stopped at the intersection, which doesn’t have a traffic signal, to let Searl cross. But Hirst told investigators he didn’t see Searl until it was too late and hit her in the intersection, knocking Searl about 19 feet from the point of impact.

Spokane police Cpl. David Adams was assigned to investigate the case. He determined through witness statements that Searl was in the unpainted, but legal, crosswalk and had the right of way.

In notes he took about the incident and investigation, Adams expressed concerns that risk managers working for the city contacted crash witnesses before police. He wrote that he was worried about “bias in civil investigation” and “witness contamination.”

“We’re after the truth, not trying to” defend the city of Spokane, Adams wrote.

Council President Ben Stuckart said the case shows “we need better pedestrian infrastructure.”

But Fagan said that since the crosswalk at the intersection is unmarked, it’s unlikely additional pedestrian infrastructure would be installed at the site. He said, however, that the case may show a need for better driver education programs. He said Stickman Knows, an information campaign led by the Spokane Regional Health District about pedestrian, bicycle and driver safety, may be a good start for that effort.

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