$12.8M for Osage Residents
A federal jury awarded $12.8 million to 24 residents of Osage Avenue yesterday after finding that Mayor Street and the city violated their rights in the wake of the bombing of the MOVE house 20 years ago.
The jury’s verdict, and comments by some of the jurors, reflected sharp criticism of Street’s actions in dealing with the residents, whose homes were among 61 destroyed in the fire that followed the Mother’s Day 1985 police bombing.
“We feel that he didn’t live up to the accountability and responsibility of his office,” said jury forewoman Cynthia A. Roberts-Tamm.
Told that many of the residents of the 6200 block of Osage who were present in Judge Clarence C. Newcomer’s courtroom had described the mayor as “arrogant,” Roberts-Tamm said:
“I would say the residents’ perception is accurate.”
The award, which amounts to more than $500,000 per resident, brings the total monetary cost of the MOVE debacle to $39.8 million, according to the city’s own figures. When fees for attorneys Adrian J. Moody, Stacy L. Shields and Robert T. Vance, who represented the residents, are added in, the total is expected to approach $43 million, if the verdict is sustained.
In addition to the money damages, the residents will be allowed to keep their houses, said Moody. If the city wants to acquire those properties, he said, it will have to exercise its powers of eminent domain and pay the owners “fair market value.”
After the five women and two men making up the jury were dismissed, the residents, who had remained silent during the lengthy reading of the verdict, exulted. Hugs were exchanged, tears were wiped away, and a “Hallelujah!” or two was exclaimed. A brief prayer meeting was held in the hallway outside the courtroom.
“I think it was a fair verdict,” said Gerald W. Renfrow, president of the Osage-Pine Community Association. “I think it proves the average citizen can stand up and win against City Hall.”
Courthouse sources said the seven jurors, at a post-trial meeting with attorneys, said the city never recovered from Street’s appearance as a witness.
“One of them said he was a disaster,” said a source.
That was made clear in the verdict. The jury found that the defendants, which included Street, the city and the Redevelopment Authority, had intended to harm the residents.
The jurors awarded the residents $960,000 on this count, or $40,000 each.
In assessing liability, the jurors said the mayor’s share was $480,000, or half. The city was assessed $346,000, and the RDA and two individual employees were assessed the rest.
The jury found that Street and the city had “acted outrageously,” and awarded the residents a total of $300,000 in punitive damages. It said Street was responsible for $200,000 of those damages.
Finding that the residents were victims of “arbitrary” government action, the jury voted $2.4 million in damages to the residents, $1,680,000 of which was assigned as Street’s liability.
The jury said that Street had acted with “malicious” disregard of the residents’ constitutional rights, and it assessed the mayor $1,250,000.
Acting City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said the city has 10 days to decide what action to take.
While “disappointed” by the verdict, said Diaz, the city was pleased that the jury in one finding said “just compensation” for the destroyed homes would be $80,000 per house.
This, said Diaz, showed that the mayor’s offer of $150,000 to buy out each resident was a “generous” offer.
Street’s office issued a statement yesterday afternoon calling the MOVE fire “one of the darkest days in the history of our city.”
“Early in this administration, in a sincere attempt to fairly compensate the residents of that community, we offered to purchase each home for $150,000.
“Thirty-seven homeowners accepted the offer. However, 24 homeowners have remained and represent the plaintiffs in the current Osage Avenue case.
“The efforts of this administration were an honest try to resolve this matter fairly after we determined we could not repair the houses to a livable level.
“In light of our attempts, we are deeply disappointed with the jury’s verdict today.”
It is not expected that the mayor will be held personally responsible for paying any of the damages.
In his 75 minutes on the witness stand, Street denied the city had any legal responsibility to compensate the residents for the destruction.
He also said, “I don’t remember” over and over again when asked about details of the negotiations between the city and the neighbors.
When Newcomer asked Street why he didn’t have a better grasp of the details, Street said, “I’m the mayor of the fifth-largest city in the country,” and was busy overseeing the multibillion-dollar budgets of the city and the schools.
Street’s direct involvement in the matter began in 2000, when he took over as mayor.
The history he inherited included a botched attempt to rebuild the destroyed houses, resulting in a contractor’s being imprisoned, and the chronic complaining of the neighbors.
“I’m happy,” said attorney Moody. “The jurors obviously took their job seriously. Maybe this will give closure to Osage Avenue finally.”