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Rock Island County paid out $1.8 million to families involved in fatal tree limb accident at courthouse

Rock Island County paid out $1.8 million to families involved in fatal tree limb accident at courthouse

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Rock Island County paid out $1.8 million to settle a lawsuit with families killed or injured when a large limb fell from a courthouse tree July 3, 2018. 

Daniel Mendoza Ortiz Sr., 61, of Rock Island, and Lawrence Anderson, 72, of Moline, were killed by the falling limb as they watched fireworks during the Red, White and Boom! celebration. 

The estates of the two men filed suit in April 2019 against the Rock Island County Sheriff's Office, the city of Rock Island and Raney Horticultural Inc./Raney Tree Care, alleging wrongful death. The suit was filed by attorney Devon Bruce of the Chicago-based law firm of Powers, Rogers & Smith LLP and includes Kathleen Carter, Kataivreonna Carter, Rachel Clem and Eric Clem — who were injured — as plaintiffs. 

Raney Tree Care was included in the suit because plaintiffs said the company was hired by the county to care for the courthouse trees before the July 3 incident. The sheriff's office was included because it is the responsibility of the office to oversee and protect the historic courthouse and surrounding property.

The county and the Rock Island County State's Attorney's office privately agreed to the settlements with parties in March and April and the case was closed July 16. State's Attorney Dora Villarreal said the plaintiffs had requested that the terms of the settlement agreements be kept confidential. 

According to documents obtained through an open records request, the Mendoza family received a total of $800,000; separately in the amounts of $640,000 and an additional $160,000 for emotional distress.

The Lawrence family received the same settlement of $800,000; in the amounts of $640,000 and an additional $160,000 for emotional distress.

Kataivreonna Carter agreed to a settlement amount of $170,000 and her mother, Kathleen Carter, received $10,000.

Kataivreonna Carter, 21, of East Moline, was nine months pregnant when she was hit in the stomach by the limb. She was taken to Trinity Moline, where she delivered a healthy baby girl by Caesarean section. She named her daughter KaMaree Kathleen Lawrence Daniel Carter, in honor of the two men killed. 

Rachel and Eric Clem of Maysville, who were seated nearby, also were injured and received $20,000. 

It is unknown how much, if any, Raney Horticultural settled with the plaintiffs in the case. 

"The county, sheriff and state's attorney's office are not legally permitted to disclose the terms of confidential settlements between Raney Horticultural and plaintiffs," said Assistant State's Attorney Kathy Swett in response to the open records request. 

The settlement documents contain the signatures of Swett, Rock Island County Sheriff Gerry Bustos and County Board Chairman Richard Brunk.

All settlements paid out by the county must be approved by the county board prior to the agreement, but board members say they were not aware the case had been settled. 

"I never got a chance to hear this in closed session in the full board," said board member Drue Mielke. "We would have voted in open session to approve whatever the amount was. It still has to come back to the county board. Otherwise, how is this money traceable? 

"Unless there is some clause in Illinois state law, I don't know how this can be done," Mielke said. "It's been bothering me. It's public money, how can it be undisclosed? I want someone to explain to me how this can be done without county board approval."

Board member Robert Westpfahl said he also was surprised to hear the county had settled the case. 

"I didn't have any idea that they did; this was the first I've heard of it," Westpfahl said. "We should have been made aware of it, and a lot more. But they don't tell us. This state's attorney's business for the county — for what they're defending us for — to me it's a complete joke."

County Administrator Jim Snider said the county "was dismissed as a party as part of the settlement agreement, pursuant to the sheriff as an elected official to settle all claims against the office."

"It was a settlement agreement on the amounts pursuant to the sheriff's powers and his duly-elected (ability) to settle claims against his office," Snider said. "That's how the civil division handled it. That's the way it was handled legally."

Brunk said the settlements were discussed during a litigation committee meeting during closed session. He said his signature is on the settlement documents because "under Illinois law as the county board chair I am the chief elected official for Rock Island County. My signature is on a lot of documents when it comes to county finances."

Board member Don Johnston, who is a member of the litigation committee, said he may have missed the meeting when the settlements were discussed. He said he also wasn't made aware of the settlements. 

"Regardless, whether it's the sheriff's office or anything else, all appropriations have to be approved by the board," Johnston said. "It should have come through the board regardless. Nothing financially can be paid without going through the (county) board. The sheriff might be able to settle (a suit), but all appropriations have to be approved by the board."

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