City Council set to approve settlements in public liability cases

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The Berkeley City Council is set to approve at its meeting Tuesday two public liability settlements, in which the city will pay a total of $77,500 for personal injuries sustained from tripping on an uneven sidewalk and being handcuffed by a Berkeley police officer.

The city's Public Liability Fund, budgeted at about $1.74 million for fiscal year 2011, is reserved for covering costs associated with public liability claims including legal advice and defense costs, lawsuits and settlements. The city is expected to allocate about $800,000 in payouts alone - part of which will be attributed to the two claims likely to be approved by the council - by the end of this fiscal year, according to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

Anne Feldman will receive $60,000 in damages for personal injuries sustained from a trip and fall accident on an uneven sidewalk on Piedmont Avenue in January 2008. The city will also pay $17,500 to Jose Bermudez, who allegedly suffered shoulder injuries while being handcuffed by a Berkeley Police Department officer.

The city settled over 26 public liability claims within the first quarter of this fiscal year - and denied 13 claims in the same period - costing the city about $107,000. Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the payouts are "pretty standard" and a cheaper alternative to fighting claims in court.

Many of the city's payouts for public liability claims are attributed to injuries sustained from uneven pavements on city property. In January, Delmar and Maretta Mitchell were awarded $50,000 after Delmar allegedly sustained permanent injuries to his knee after falling on a Shattuck Avenue sidewalk.

While private property owners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalks in front of their properties - and consequently the injuries sustained on those sidewalks - the city is responsible for plant upkeep, according to the state's Streets and Highways Code. City programs like the Spiral Sidewalk Replacement Program fund sidewalk repair initiatives, but Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district includes the site of Feldman's injury, said many sidewalk incidents are a result of the ever-growing trees rooted between the sidewalk and the street, whose roots lift and damage the concrete.

"We should have put smaller trees in," Wozniak said. "Every five to six years we go back and redo sidewalks ... People like big trees, but literally the sidewalk medium strip is 4 feet wide (and) the tree is 5 feet around."

Over 50,000 trees line the city's streets, according to Wozniak, who said the city could do a "better job" monitoring sidewalk maintenance.

"We have a couple hundred miles of sidewalk, and there are dangerous situations that occur," he said. "You need a way of inspecting all the sidewalks probably quarterly or twice a year, or a way citizens can report (it)."

However, public liability claims can vary substantially in nature. In August 2008, Keith Rarick, who was on a bicycle, sustained injuries as a result of an accident with a city vehicle. Likewise, Berkeley resident Arden Johnson was awarded a settlement after city sewer lines malfunctioned and sewage backed up into her house, eventually causing her to contract an E. coli infection.


Yousur Alhlou covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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