When cops kill, paying their victims' families can be a cold, calculating process, attorneys say


What was the inherent value of Philando Castile's life?

It's an abstract question many people would refrain from answering. It's also a complicated legal riddle attorneys are compelled to solve every time a police officer kills an individual.

On Monday, Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, agreed to a nearly $3 million settlement to drop a lawsuit against St. Anthony, Minnesota, nearly a year after one of its officers, Jeronimo Yanez, fatally shot her son during a traffic stop.

Her attorney, Robert Bennett, and other legal experts told Mic that establishing police brutality settlement amounts involves examining callous, but legally-relevant factors, such as the victim's age, education level and overall lifetime earning potential.

"It's more art than science, I can tell you that," Bennett said in an interview. "It depends on the jurisdiction and what you think the risk factors are favoring and opposing your case. It may also depend on the size of the governmental entity."

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Major cities like New York and Chicago spend hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money every year to settle police misconduct lawsuits.

In fatal incidents, lawyers also must consider how many children the victim had, how relatively egregious the officer's actions were and even how much physical pain the victim likely endured before he or she died.

New York civil rights attorney David B. Rankin said more money is typically provided when victims die days later at a hospital than when they die quickly at the scene of an incident.

"Pain and suffering is a really ghoulish metric," Rankin admitted. "You can't quantify a life. Any effort to do that is, of course, futile. But because our civil justice system, such as it is, only talks about money, that's the exercise we have to engage in."

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It's a legal equation that often devalues the lives of black and brown Americans, especially black men, who are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than white men, but are also disproportionately poorer and less educated on average.

Consequently, the inherent value of people like Castile, in the eyes of the law, is typically substantially less than an educated white person of means.

This explains how someone like Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews, who makes an estimated $2 million annually, could win a $55 million jury verdict for unwittingly being filmed naked in a hotel room by a confessed peeping Tom; yet the family of Castile — who was a cafeteria worker — is forced to settle for much less money, even though Castile is dead and Andrews, despite suffering great personal harm, is very much alive.

"A CEO making a lot of money is going to get more than someone who is on unemployment," Teresa Nelson, interim executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said in an interview. "I personally think every human life should be valued the same, but it often comes down to, 'How much money is this person really worth?' It is horrible."

The precedent value on black life

Susan Walsh/AP

Attorneys also commonly look at how much money other plaintiffs were awarded in similar cases and the maximum amount a small municipality's civil liability insurer is contractually obligated to pay.

The risk posed to an officer during the fatal encounter is factored in as well.

Bennett said the fact Castile had a gun, even though he was licensed to carry it, elevated the risk officer Yanez experienced during their encounter and reduced the amount Castile's family could argue for.


"You've got the [dash cam] video, which is good, and this livestreaming, which helps," Bennett said, "but you'd be hard-pressed to find many cases where the person had a gun and the case was successful."

Michael Brown's parents recently settled their lawsuit against Ferguson, Missouri, for $1.5 million. The city of Cleveland agreed to pay $6 million to Tamir Rice's family in 2016, an amount comparable to the $5.9 million Eric Garner's family agreed to in 2015 and the $6.4 million Freddy Gray's family settled for the same year.

"It's pretty hard to come in and say, 'We should get $70 million,' when no one else has received that much money," Rankin said.

While all of these factors are critical, ultimately settlements come down to weighing the risk of what six to 12 jurors might do if a case went to trial.

Victims' families could walk away with nothing.

The recent criminal acquittal of Tulsa Police officer Betty Shelby and the two mistrials for former University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing illustrate how unpredictable juries can be.

It's a risk most people aren't willing to take, regardless of the moral principle.

"If any trial lawyer tells you he knows what a jury's going to do, he's lying," Bennett said. "That's why people settle cases."