Patterico's Pontifications

3/3/2008

Tennie Pierce’s Bosses Collect $1.6 Million on Claim They Were Scapegoated

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General,Race — Patterico @ 9:02 pm

The L.A. Times reports:

One of the costliest racial harassment cases in the history of the Los Angeles City Fire Department grew more expensive Monday when a jury awarded $1.6 million to two white captains suspended after a black firefighter they supervised had his meal laced with dog food.

Capts. John Tohill and Chris Burton sued the city in October 2006, claiming they were made scapegoats for the misconduct of a Latino firefighter who placed dog food in the spaghetti dinner of firefighter Tennie Pierce four years ago.

Of course, the lesson learned from this depends on your perspective. The author of the article seems to think the lesson is that L.A. Fire Department management is really bad. But the lesson I take from it is slightly different: the city should have taken Tennie Pierce to court. He wouldn’t have won one thin dime.

By blowing the whole thing out of proportion, refusing to tell readers key facts about the case, and putting political pressure on the Fire Department to Do Something, the paper’s editors bear some of the blame.

You don’t see that in today’s story, of course. And you won’t. But you’ll see it here.

19 Comments

  1. It’s been very disappointing to read about the Tennie Pierce case.

    Comment by DRJ (d8934e) — 3/3/2008 @ 9:35 pm

  2. In the end, the taxpayer continues to take it in the ass on this issue.

    Comment by JD (626b4c) — 3/3/2008 @ 9:49 pm

  3. I don’t understand this post. You seem to be saying press coverage was the problem.

    I see a problem with the fire department, the city council, the original plaintiff, and the two more recent plaintiffs, all acting stupidly or greedily in different ways, and the lawyers and judges who failed to point out that massive cash awards weren’t the solution.

    How do you lay the blame at the feet of a newspaper, however flawed the coverage, for the failures of the responsible defense lawyers, plaintiffs lawyers, government lawyers, city politicians, and judges to ensure justice was done? As bad as the paper may or may not have been in its analysis, it was the legal professionals in the system who deserve the blame if you find the results unjust. First amendment gives the press the right to comment on the case, rightly or wrongly. Professional responsibility requires the legal system to reach the correct result regardless of the press, bad or good.

    It kind of bothers me that as a lawyer yourself you give the press such a large role in determining the outcome of cases. The lawyers in court have an opportunity and a literally captive audience to dispel whatever misconceptions the press might have imparted. It’s not like the jurors were much influenced by articles they probably didn’t even read after both sides presented all their evidence in court.

    Comment by Aplomb (d0fdfd) — 3/3/2008 @ 9:56 pm

  4. Aplomb – Had you read the 15 prior posts Patterico has done on this topic, you would understand how he feels that the media grossly distorted the “facts”, and is overtly complicit in how this entire scenario played out.

    Comment by JD (626b4c) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:00 pm

  5. “Aplomb – Had you read the 15 prior posts Patterico has done on this topic, you would understand how he feels that the media grossly distorted the “facts”, and is overtly complicit in how this entire scenario played out.”

    I read some of them, although not all 15. Still wondering why this is a press failure and not a legal system failure. And disturbed that a government lawyer blames the free press and not the legal system for what is seen as a failure of the system.

    Comment by Aplomb (d0fdfd) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:08 pm

  6. Aplomb,

    Go to your nearest bookstore. Buy a dictionary. Look up the word “some.” It’s under “s.”

    Comment by Patterico (4bda0b) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:28 pm

  7. I blame the City Attorney and the politicians for being weak, and the L.A. Times for helping create the atmosphere that makes that weakness likely.

    Comment by Patterico (4bda0b) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:29 pm

  8. I read some of them, although not all 15. Still wondering why this is a press failure and not a legal system failure.

    All you have to do is read the one I linked in this post, and your wondering should be over — assuming some rationality on your part, which might be too much of an assumption, given your demonstrated poor reading comprehension skills on evidence in this thread.

    Comment by Patterico (4bda0b) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:31 pm

  9. The lawyers in court have an opportunity and a literally captive audience to dispel whatever misconceptions the press might have imparted. It’s not like the jurors were much influenced by articles they probably didn’t even read after both sides presented all their evidence in court.

    It’s not like Tennie Pierce’s case made it to trial, genius. Which is what I am complaining about, you might have noticed.

    Comment by Patterico (4bda0b) — 3/3/2008 @ 10:36 pm

  10. “All you have to do is read the one I linked in this post, and your wondering should be over — assuming some rationality on your part, which might be too much of an assumption, given your demonstrated poor reading comprehension skills on evidence in this thread.”

    That was one of the few of the 15 you wrote that I did read.

    Despite my poor reading comprehension skills, and begging indulgence to continue your assumption of some rationality on my part, answer me this:

    Is it that the LA Times has such a thrall over the populace of Los Angeles that a few news articles about a matter of local concern so poisons the well of potential jurors that no issue that the paper covers can ever thereafter result in a fair trial? Are all Los Angeles courts, elected politicians, prosecutors and private attorneys so cowered by the bias of the LA Times’s spin that the paper’s imperfect coverage of a certain case is to be blamed for a crazy outrageous multimillion dollar result?

    The press is powerful, but it is not that powerful, in the court system at least. When things go wrong in court, you can blame the judge, or the jury, or the lawyers. If you have an allegation that the judge was improperly influenced by the press, make it. If you have an allegation that the jury was improperly influenced by the press, make it. If you have an allegation that the lawyers were improperly influenced by the press, make it.

    If you can’t make a specific allegation, whining about press coverage that set a tone or emphasized facts that didn’t correspond with those you would have emphasized is just weak. Lawyers, judges and jurors aren’t dumbasses. They will get beyond press coverage bias in their lengthy trials, that’s what they all are charged with.

    Maybe I am too idealistic an attorney, but press coverage has never got in my way in any case. Maybe you are too cynical an attorney, Patterico, if you think you can lay some blame on this whole debacle on a newspaper simply opining on the case and not place it squarely on the city, lawyers, judges, and plaintiffs involved in the case.

    Comment by Aplomb (d0fdfd) — 3/3/2008 @ 11:02 pm

  11. Um, Aplomb, the Tennie Pierce case didn’t make it to trial. It was settled, likely because the politicians didn’t care for the heat they were getting as a result of the news coverage. They also punished the two captains in this story, accusing them of racism and suspending them from their jobs.

    Now, if that coverage had been balanced and honest, would they have been subject to the same level of heat? Would there have been as much pressure to make it all go away?

    Don’t journalists have a responsibility to do their jobs in the manner they claim — fair, impartial, honest?

    Comment by Rob Crawford (8578d9) — 3/4/2008 @ 3:56 am

  12. Once again, I’m not suggesting this verdict was wrong or influenced by the press. I’m suggesting:

    1) The failure to take Tennie Pierce’s case to trial was a weak decision caused by a political atmosphere that was fueled in part by this paper’s unfair stories. I think the jury *could* have gotten past that, and found the common sense to award him nothing.

    2) Based on that same political atmosphere, two fire captains were scapegoated, resulting in what I assume was a proper verdict in this case.

    See? I trust the jury system more than the City attorney did. Yes, juries can be unpredictable, but here I think they would have done the right thing. Which is why I say in the post that they should have taken Tennie Pierce to trial.

    Get it yet?

    Comment by Patterico (434594) — 3/4/2008 @ 6:21 am

  13. There’s usually a qualified privilege for employers to wrongfully discipline and even slander their employees. The Fire Department’s conduct against the two captains must have been pretty outrageous.

    Comment by nk (7b0075) — 3/4/2008 @ 6:50 am

  14. wow, the city treasury is like a bottomless pinata full of money; people coming up and whacking it for a million here, two million there. i’m wondering if i can get a million too, even though i was in oregon the whole time, well, i was offended reading some of this material, i don’t know how that compares to eating dog food, but a can of alpo would be no object between me and a million dollars.

    time was, a million dollar case involved personal injury with some kind of permanent impairment. as i understand it, tennie pierce’s only injury was hurt feelings. they gave him a million bucks for hurt feelings? nothing he’s ever felt, said, wrote or did in his life is worth a million dollars.

    this is your city, and these are the people you elected to run it, and they’re too stupid and/or corrupt to handle the job. you think it’s bad now, wait until the infrastructure fails. when the clean water runs out, when the electricity goes off, a state of nature, red in tooth and claw, will emerge, and los angeles will be like mogadishu except that the lakers don’t play home games in mogadishu. those of you who cannot escape are doomed, all of you. have a nice day!

    Comment by assistant devil's advocate (57bc7f) — 3/4/2008 @ 8:35 am

  15. I was at a meeting with the daughter of Kenny Hahn, a city councilwoman, during the height of this controversy. It had nothing to do with the fire department. During the question period, someone asked about the Tennie Pierce case. Her rage at the fire department was almost shocking. It was all about “boys” and the terrible things they do when they are supposed to be working. This was all about the city council and their political and cultural values. The Times adds to this atmosphere with their constant denigration of the LAPD and the feminization of all life experience. They were not prepared to understand what happened. She was really angry at firemen.

    Comment by Mike K (86bddb) — 3/4/2008 @ 9:01 am

  16. I’m with Aplomb on this one. His post seems reasonable and appropriate to me. I find it hard to understand the obvious testiness and the impatience that’s been expressed by some others posting here, and I’ve read nearly all the previous posts on this topic. Indeed, a few of the reactions posted in response step well over the line, including posting #8, which I’d judge to be highly discourteous for no obvious reason that I can see. Is more going on here in this thread than meets the eye?

    Comment by Iapetus (ea6f31) — 3/4/2008 @ 11:13 am

  17. Simple. Aplomb misread my post as placing all the blame on the paper, when I said the paper deserves “some” of the blame. (People always seem to overlook that word!) Then he took a shot at me as a lawyer, based on his misreading. I have explained it quite clearly, and the reasons I said what I said should also be quite clear.

    Comment by Patterico (bf548f) — 3/4/2008 @ 12:04 pm

  18. Patterico: I agree with you in principle 100% over the Pierce debacle. However, I am a tiny bit more charitable towards the City Attorney. Their final settlement offer was completely outrageous, but the jury pool in LA does have a reputation of being exceedingly generous towards Plaintiffs. Civil Central West isn’t called “the bank” by the Plaintiffs’ bar for nothing.

    Comment by Sean P (e57269) — 3/4/2008 @ 3:15 pm

  19. The press coverage reads as though the jury should have balked at awarding any money to Burton and Tohill based on Tennie Pierce’s case. But this was a different case. How would that have been legal, or justice? Perhaps defense Council was depending on an appeal all along and simply gave up trying the case to win it on that assumption.

    Comment by Lourdes Maleficio (a5d72c) — 3/5/2008 @ 6:22 pm

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