Getty Images / Scott Olson
Two women walk toward a visitor's entrance of a maximum security detention area of the Cook County jail February 12, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.
In what plaintiffs' lawyers are calling the largest-ever class-action settlement of its kind, Cook County will pay $55 million to settle a lawsuit over illegal strip-searches conducted at Cook County Jail.
Cook County commissioners on Tuesday morning approved the settlement in a 14-1 vote. Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside) was the sole dissenter. Two commissioners were absent during the vote.
"I believe that the trial on damages that took place with a limited group of select plaintiffs selected by plaintiffs' class attorneys, when they knew that these were the best of the lot, to establish a per-person potential claim, that would take them to these stratospheric levels, I think it's a bad deal for the taxpayers," said the lawyer-turned-commissioner.
Others said not settling the case would set the county up for even larger damages.
"Based on trials in other jurisdictions of a similar nature, we felt this was the best way to deal with this," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston).
At a time when some projections estimate a multi-million shortfall in the upcoming Cook County budget, the settlement begs the question of where the funding will be found.
Suffredin tried to assuage any fears by saying there's a way to transfer funds within the budget and that the county has an umbrella policy on its insurance to help cover the amount.
At least a quarter of a million people jailed between January 2004 and March 2009 are eligible to share in the settlement, according to a release from the law firm of Loevy and Loevy.
In February 2009, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly faulted the jail for strip-searching people who were awaiting bail on minor crimes like traffic violations. He also found that the jail would perform the searches "by needlessly humiliating the detainees with group strip searches of upwards of 100 people at a time standing shoulder to shoulder in unsanitary conditions."
More than 400 class members submitted affidavits attesting that "guards used insults or abusive language during strip searches," the law firm said. "These included insults about body odor, anatomy, sexual orientation, and race."
In August 2009, a jury found that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was liable for allowing the abusive strip searches to continue years after he took office.
In a statement, sheriff's department spokesman Steve Patterson said the plaintiff's claims were made based on "practices which haven't existed in years."
Within 90 days of Dart taking office in 2006, screens were installed to ensure privacy during searches, he said. Later, high-tech body scanners were installed in every building on the Cook County Jail campus.
"Thanks to those machines, for years now, strip searches have only been conducted when those scanners indicate there is probably cause to conduct a more detailed search of a person," said Patterson.
Patterson also said the "vast majority" of the money in the settlement will go to lawyers and not the plaintiffs.
"The amount each detainee could actually see is very small -- in most cases, just a few hundred bucks -- compared to the millions and millions of taxpayer dollars that will be reaped by these lawyers," he said.
The settlement provides for payments to each class member who submits a timely claim. Attorneys will also be suing two of the county's insurers (both owned by AIG) which refused to contribute to the settlement, the release said.