Chicago City Council settles drug-swallowing death lawsuit for $1.3 million

Clout Street

The Chicago City Council today voted to spend $1.3 million to settle a civil suit filed by the mother of a man who collapsed and died after swallowing drugs during his arrest last summer.

Although some aldermen expressed opposition, Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, noted that a videotape in a police vehicle captured officers not calling for immediate medical help when John Coleman Jr., 39, was in physical distress.

“Having seen the videotape, I’m sure (aldermen) would agree that it’s best to settle this case for this amount,” Burke said, invoking the lyrics of a Kenny Rogers song: “ ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, and in the opinion of the Law Department, this is a case that needs to be folded and settled for this amount ASAP.”

But Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, disagreed. “I don’t care what the officers did,” he said. “That person was a criminal in my mind, and I’m going to vote no on this.”

Coleman was spotted in July 2010 by officers taking part in an apparent drug sale on the 100 block of West Division Street, a city attorney said. Coleman ran, and after being caught, struggled with officers. One used a Taser to subdue him.

Officers put Coleman into a police vehicle for a trip to the 18th District police station at Larrabee and Division streets.

“Officers stop the SUV, exit the SUV, open the door and then see that he’s in distress, but close the door and proceed on to the station house,” Leslie Darling, a top City Hall attorney, told aldermen this week. “At the station house, officers removed him from the vehicle. He was unresponsive, and only at that time did they call for medical assistance.”

As Coleman was being placed in the vehicle, officers four times told Coleman to open his mouth, and later it was discovered he had swallowed a bag containing packets containing heroin, Darling said. Coleman died, and an autopsy later determined that he died from a heroin and cocaine overdose, she said.

“The evidence was the videotape, which clearly showed (Coleman) in distress, and so the decision was made to move forward with settlement,” Darling said. “Jury verdicts of up to $5 million have been awarded in comparable cases involving a denial of medical care,” Darling added. “So our interest was to minimize the financial — the potential — and settle this case.”

Daniel O’Brien, an attorney representing Coleman’s mother, Connie, said police procedure required officers to call for medical help after Coleman was Tasered, as well as after he collapsed in the SUV. “They did not take him to an emergency room as they were required to,” O’Brien said.

Alexis Zayas and Ronnie Black, two of five officers named in the suit, were relieved of their police powers pending an investigation by the Independent Police Review Authority that will make a discipline recommendation to the police superintendent, Darling said.

The council today also agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a civil lawsuit filed by a young man who lost his leg as the result of a February 2008 crash caused by a pothole near Kedzie Avenue and West Street.

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