A little less than a year after St. Anthony Village police officer Geronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop — and a little more than a week after a Ramsey County jury acquitted Yanez of manslaughter — the city of St. Anthony and Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, have settled their civil case.
Under the terms of a deal that was announced in joint press release on Monday, the city has agreed to pay $2.995 million to Valerie Castile to drop any and all potential claims related to the killing of her son.
The settlement, which is just $5,000 shy of the $3 million cap in the city’s insurance policy, will be paid by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.
According to Darrin Richardson, claims manager for the insurance trust, it is the largest single payout the insurer has ever made over allegations of police misconduct.
That’s not to say it’s the biggest such settlement in Minnesota history, as several of the state’s big cities are self-insured and, in the case of Minneapolis, have settled a handful of misconduct claims for even greater sums.
The largest of those payouts went to the late Minneapolis Police Officer Duy Ngo, who got a $4.5 million settlement for injuries he sustained after being shot by a fellow officer in 2003.
What explains the timing of the Castile settlement, which came hot on the heels of Yanez’s acquittal and without the filing — or even the serving — of an actual lawsuit?
In an interview, Robert Bennett, one of Castile’s lawyers (and the attorney for the aforementioned Duy Ngo), credited the swift resolution in part to his opposing counsel, Joseph Flynn.
Bennett said he and Flynn, a partner at the firm Jardine, Logan & O’Brien, have squared off in court over police misconduct claims 20 to 25 times over the decades and, the familiarity and respect established over time, made for a less contentious process, said Bennett.
“It went expeditiously but not because we didn’t spend 25 years getting ready for it,” said Bennett, who praised Flynn for recognizing “the validity of the claim” and having the “fortitude and experience” to settle.
“I’m not saying Joe’s a pushover and he wouldn’t tell you that I am either,” said Bennett, a partner at the Minneapolis firm of Gaskins Bennett Birrell Schupp. “But you have to make a rational assessment of what you can do for your client. He saved his people a lot of angst and he got rid of the possibility of a runaway jury verdict. We settled for an amount that’s reasonably fair and that stopped the litigation process from further exacerbating the suffering of the family and the community.”
For his part, Flynn echoed the latter sentiment, saying the city wanted a quick settlement “to spare the community and the Castile family years of litigation.”
According to Flynn, the broad parameters of the deal were worked out prior to Yanez’s trial but didn’t come together until the criminal case concluded.
One reason: Until the prosecution had presented its case, Flynn had not yet reviewed some of the key evidence.
“I do a lot of police defense litigation and normally we have access to everything,” Flynn said. “This was unusual because a lot of the details were still locked down by the prosecutor, including the actual squad video.”
Bennett said the evidence introduced at Yanez’s trial, especially the video evidence, served to confirm his view of the case.
“You see an officer who panicked and let his emotions, rather than objective reasonableness, rule the day,” Bennett said. “It’s the same as a lot of the shootings I’ve handled over the years.”
So why did the city push to cap the settlement at $5,000 under its policy limit?
Flynn said there is “a really good reason” but one that he was not at liberty to discuss.
Bennett said he doesn’t know for certain but offered a bit of speculation: In the event that Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, decides to sue, the city wants to have a “smidgeon” of funds available to defend Yanez.
Had the city settled for the full $3 million, Bennett ventured, that may have extinguished its duty to defend and, in turn, complicated the terms under which St. Anthony Police Department sacked the officer.
It remains unclear whether Diamond Reynolds will sue.
In Bennett’s view, it’s even less clear whether she has a viable civil rights claim under Section 1983 of the federal code, which is his preferred vehicle for bringing misconduct claims against police.
“It depends if she was actually seized,” Bennett said. “She was handcuffed and put in a squad car for a little bit but I’m not sure that’s enough deprivation of liberty to amount to a Fourth Amendment violation.”
That’s significant, Bennett continued, because while Reynolds can certainly sue Yanez and the St. Anthony Police Department in state court, the forum would deprive her of the more “robust” remedies that are available to plaintiffs in federal court: punitive damages as a matter of right and attorney’s fees and costs for the prevailing party.
As trustee for Philando Castile’s next of kin, those tools were available to Valerie Castile and, thus, increased the value of her case.
Still, to seal the deal, Bennett said he and co-counsel Glenda Hatchett had to convince Castile that the taking a $3 million settlement was in her best interest.
According to Bennett, Castile was fully aware of the more lucrative settlements reached in some other recent high profile police shooting cases, including the $6 million payout to the family of Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old with a toy gun who shot dead by Cleveland Police, and the $6.4 million payout to the family of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury in the back of a Baltimore Police transport van.
In part, Bennett said, he and Hatchett had to explain the vagaries of litigating police misconduct claims in Minnesota as opposed to more plaintiff friendly venues where jury awards and settlements run higher.
“I said we’re not in Cleveland, we’re not in Chicago, we’re not in Baltimore,” said Bennett. “And we don’t live in the most financially compassionate setting.”
Bennett was recruited to the case in September by Hatchett, the Atlanta attorney (and star of the syndicated courtroom reality show, “Judge Hatchett”) retained by Castile in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Bennett described his work with Hatchett as a “wonderful collaboration.” He said the two travelled to Washington, D.C. last winter to make a joint presentation to Congress on the subject of police shootings and, additionally, that she was “integral” to the final settlement.