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$4 million settlement to family of 7-year-old girl killed by tractor driver triggers broader review

Samyra Lee of Englewood was struck and killed in May 2016 by a tractor driven by an employee of Truck Tire Sales, the city’s weed-cutting contractor.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson talks to Chicago Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman earlier this year.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Inspector General Joe Ferguson is auditing the city’s weed cutting program — and the selection of a private contractor to perform the service has been put on hold — pending a review of “lessons learned” from a fatal accident that triggered a $4 million settlement, aldermen were told Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has lured Tamika Puckett, director of enterprise risk management for the city of Atlanta, to lead Chicago’s new Office of Risk Management.

Exhibit “A” for Puckett’s efforts could be the weed-cutting program that triggered the $4 million settlement advanced by the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday.

The settlement will compensate the family of Samyra Lee, a 7-year-old Englewood girl struck and killed in May 2016 by a tractor being driven by an employee of Truck Tire Sales, the city’s weed cutting contractor.

First Assistant Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney disclosed Monday the selection of a new weed cutting contractor is on hold pending a review of the tragedy by the Departments of Law and Streets and Sanitation.

Possibilities include higher insurance requirements, increased safety requirements and additional separation between City Hall and the private contractor.

Although Truck Tire Sales hired its own seasonal workers and used company-owned equipment, Rodney noted the city’s case against liability was weakened by the extraordinary control the city exercised over the contractor.

The company’s tractors — with “stickers bearing the city’s emblem” — were stored at city ward yards, where weed-cutters started and ended their shifts.

The city dictated what time the weed cutters took lunch and required them to maintain a “Weed-Cutting Daily Report.” If they did not follow those terms, they could be “sent home,” she said.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) was somewhat stunned to learn Truck Tire Sales’ tractor drivers were not required to have a commercial driver’s license, only a regular driver’s license.

“Wow,” she said.

Balloons adorn fence outside Providence Englewood Charter School in May 2016 after Samyra Lee was struck and killed while trying to cross Ashland Avenue near the school.
Balloons adorn the fence outside Providence Englewood Charter School in May 2016 after Samyra Lee was struck and killed while trying to cross Ashland Avenue near the school.
Andy Grim/Chicago Sun-Times

Smith questioned whether the city was considering “changes in operating procedures of the department in order to, first of all, reduce liability or, in this case, whether these are operations that really should be out-sourced, given the liability.”

Rodney noted city attorneys have been meeting with “managers from Streets and Sanitation to discuss the lessons that arose from this case with respect to the liability that attached to the city based on the terms of the contract.”

“The solicitation for bids for a new contract have been put on hold while that is ongoing. The [Office of Inspector General] is also conducting an audit of the weed cutting program and they will be coordinating with the Law Department along with Streets and Sanitation,” she said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) was troubled to learn the city’s contract with Truck Tire Sales, which expired March 31, has been extended until 2020 — pending the review — with no modifications and no increased insurance requirements beyond $1 million.

“We do a lot of weed-cutting in my ward. ... We have thousands of lots getting cut. Opportunities for this kind of accident are [rampant]. The fact that this is one of the few that we’ve had is remarkable,” Lopez said.

“Once it happens, you have to do your best to make sure it never happens again and, if it does, that we are protecting our city.”

Ald. David Moore (17th) noted ward sanitation operations have been now centralized into districts.

“If a weed cutter is traveling that long of a distance, it’s always gonna open itself for the possibility of more accidents,” Moore said.

“In the past, they always say, `We’re saving money.’ I really want to know, since we centralized, how much are we saving? That’s got to include everything from incidents like this, more gas being used to travel longer distances. All of that has to be calculated.”

The Finance Committee also signed off on a $650,000 settlement stemming from allegations of police wrongdoing.

It goes to Tyrone Scott, who claims he was arrested on gun charges in June 2012 — and subsequently spent four years in prison — even though he never possessed the gun that was supposed to be his.

In April 2016, the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges against Scott after it was notified that the Independent Police Review Authority had expanded its investigation to include Rule 14 violations against two of the officers accused of lying on their official reports.