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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005 02:40 pm

“The principle”

Judge lowers damages in controversial ISP case, but affirms jury’s legal findings

Former Illinois State Police lieutenant Michale Callahan went to court Tuesday expecting to find out how much money he had won in his lawsuit against his former superior officers. Instead, he was told he may face another trial on punitive damages, or a lengthy appeal. “It’s a no-win situation for me,” he says.  In April, a federal jury in Urbana found that ISP had retaliated against Callahan when he was transferred from criminal investigations to traffic enforcement after seeking to re-open a Paris double-murder case [see “Badge of honor” Aug. 25]. Callahan sued three officers in his chain of command, and the jury assessed punitive damages in the amount of $276,700 against Capt. Steve Fermon and $195,600 against Lt. Col. Diane Carper. At a hearing on Aug. 19, U.S. District Judge Harold Baker reduced those damages to $117,000 for Fermon and $104,000 for Carper, using their ISP salaries as a basis for his ruling. On Tuesday, he further reduced the punitive damages to $100,000 against Fermon, $50,000 against Carper, telling Callahan he could accept that amount, mediate another amount with ISP, or face a new trial strictly on punitive damages. Callahan says that leaves him no good options, because even if he accepts the judge’s sum, ISP will appeal. ISP attorney Keith Jensen did not return a phone call seeking comment. “The money doesn’t make a difference. I guess it’s more the principle,” Callahan says. “When a government entity gets sued and loses, and the damages keep getting lowered, it almost makes it look like that government entity is exonerated.”
Callahan’s attorney, John Baker, found good news in the judge’s ruling, which endorsed the jury’s legal conclusions. “I thought it was very favorable to us all the way around with the exception of lowering the punitive damages,” he says. “And even that had nothing to do with what Carper and Fermon did; just how much money they have in the bank. It was based upon the judge’s perception that the relative net worth of a defendant is relevant in assessing punitive damages.”
The judge gave Callahan and ISP 21 days to agree on a mediated settlement, and the parties made an immediate attempt by adjourning to U.S. District Judge David Bernthal’s courtroom for mediation. However, neither side budged. Meanwhile, Carper and Fermon not only remain on the job — despite a state law that requires termination of any policymaking officers assessed punitive damages for violating an employee’s civil rights — but also represented by a team of “special assistant attorney generals” contracted through private law firms. Baker says he requested copies of their monthly billing statements as early as last summer and about every other week since, but has not yet received the information.
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