Aldermen swallow precedent concerns, approve $20M settlement in Frugoli case

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Joseph Frugoli | Sun-Times file photo

John H. White/Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen on Monday swallowed their concerns about the dangerous legal precedent and signed off on a $20 million settlement to compensate the families of two men killed by inebriated off-duty police Det. Joseph Frugoli.

For more than an hour, aldermen questioned why Chicago taxpayers should be required to pay “through the nose” for the destructive actions of an officer driving drunk on his own time.

“How is that our responsibility…if Joe the window-washer goes home and does something? This is a very slippery slope we are embarking on,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

“I understand he is a police officer, but how do we get roped into your private life, your private activity? Why are we on the hook for his private actions — not police actions? I can see if he shot somebody. But this is totally out of bounds as far as his job is concerned.”

First Deputy Corporation Counsel Jenny Notz said the city made that argument and was shot down repeatedly in court because attorneys representing the families of Fausto Manzera and Andrew Cazares made a more compelling argument about the code of silence in the Chicago Police Department.

The two men were sitting in their dark car — after a flat tire on the Dan Ryan Expressway shorted out the vehicle’s electricity — when it was hit by Frugoli in 2009.

“Plaintiffs argument here is that the Police Department was on notice based on the two prior accidents that this officer had a history of automobile accidents — at least one potentially involving drinking – that the department did not investigate or discipline the officer for…and, therefore, that the officer was emboldened to drive while drunk, causing the accident here,” Notz said.

Notz stood her ground, even after Ervin suggested that aldermen nix the settlement and take its chances on appeal.

“The reason why we do not recommend that this case go to verdict and we take an appeal is based on the horrific facts of the case and the magnitude of the exposure. The way that these two young men died is likely to produce a massive verdict even more massive than the one we’re recommending,” she said.

Aldermen were equally incredulous when told that the same sergeant–Stacy Smith-Cotter–had responded to two early-morning car accidents involving Frugoli that happened on successive days in January 2008.

“What are the odds of the same sergeant showing up for two incidents involving the same police officer?…What shift was this officer working? This case raises all sorts of alarm bells for me,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the city should look more deeply into both of the 2008 accidents involving Frugoli and Smith-Cotter, who has since retired and may have protected him.

“You would argue that this guy was on his own time unless there was something that you were trying to shield in terms of a code of silence on behalf of the police,” Dowell said.

The city waved the white flag in the case — and entered into settlement negotiations – just four days after surrendering a document that should have been turned over to plaintiffs’ attorneys before the trial and appeared to prove their claim that a “code of silence” — famously acknowledged by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — led Frugoli to believe he could continue to drive drunk.

Also on Monday, aldermen signed off on a $1.35 million settlement to the family of a man who left a bar, drove into the Chicago River from Goose Island and drowned after a night out with friends.

The family of Michael Jansson, whose body was discovered 11 years later, claimed that the city “negligently failed to maintain stop signs” at the portion of the river where Jansson’s vehicle likely entered.

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