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City pushing back too strongly in suits against cops, lawyers say

Christopher Ries thought he’d finally won.

A jury awarded him $4 million for neck and back injuries he suffered after he was hit by a stolen Chicago Police squad car in 2002. Jurors faulted the police for leaving the suspect alone in the back of the squad with the keys in the ignition — and for then chasing the suspect.

But the city appealed, claiming the officers should receive immunity. And last month, the city won in the Illinois Supreme Court, canceling out Ries’ award.

Chicago is getting more aggressive in fighting lawsuits against police officers — a strategy that’s winning approval from the rank-and-file who believe the city settled too easily in the past.

But some plaintiffs and their attorneys complain the city is going too far.

“For the average citizen this is a very scary situation,” said Ries’ attorney, Scott Rudin. “It’s a guilty verdict and there’s no recourse for this guy. This is something where the city should have stood up and said, ‘You know what? We’re wrong.’ ”

Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle explained the city started asking outside lawyers to take “defensible” lawsuits to trial for $25,000 each. They get a $15,000 bonus for winning. As a result, the number of new lawsuits alleging police misconduct dropped by 47 percent in 2010, Hoyle said.

In one example of this get-tough approach, three cops won a jury verdict the plaintiff is now challenging — saying the defense attorney engaged in aggressive, unfair conduct at trial.

The officers were accused of framing Jeremy Venson by planting crack cocaine on him. A jury handed down a verdict in the officers’ favor in February.

Now Venson — who claimed he spent 18 days in jail on a false charge that was dismissed — is asking for a new trial. He claims one of the defense attorneys for the officers improperly elicited testimony about evidence that was barred by the judge.

The testimony made U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo furious.

“I don’t know where you learned your trial procedures,” the judge told the attorney, Shneur Nathan. “I don’t know if it’s ‘Boston Legal’ or anything else, sir. I’ve been teaching trial litigation for more than 20 years, so take this to heed. If you keep going this way, you are going to lose your license.”

Irene Dymkar, an attorney for Venson, said he deserves a new trial because Nathan’s tactics resulted in an unfair trial. The request is pending. Nathan declined comment.

Dymkar lost a different lawsuit against two police officers in January and has filed a motion for a new trial in that case, too, seeking sanctions against the defense attorney for alleged misconduct during the trial.

Venson, meanwhile, is back in jail in a separate case, records show.

The Ries case is another example of the city’s aggressive approach to police lawsuits, Rudin said.

Rudin said the city should have settled. The jury found that the city engaged in a course of conduct that showed “an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others,” according to the verdict.

Ries’ lawyers had claimed the Chicago officers violated their own pursuit rules and were chasing the stolen squad when it smashed into Ries, who was sitting in his car at a stoplight at Western and Pratt.

Ries remains on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. His lawyers are asking the state’s high court to re-hear the case.

“They should not have chased him. They basically pulled the trigger on this gun,” Rudin said. “If they hadn’t chased him, where was this guy going with a stolen police car?’’

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