Rut accident costs Fargo $450,000
FARGO -- The city of Fargo has settled a claim by the family of an 8-year-old Fargo girl who was killed Dec. 10 in a three-vehicle accident that Mayor Dennis Walaker blamed on a rut in the road on South University Drive.
City Attorney Erik Johnson said the city paid the Amanda Leininger family $450,000.
After The Forum inquired about the settlement, the city and Leininger family released the following joint statement Wednesday afternoon:
"As a result of settlement discussions occurring on July 29, 2009, the family of Jessica and Amanda Leininger have come to a resolution of the family's claims against the City of Fargo regarding the tragic accident of December 10, 2008.
"Curtis and Cynthia Leininger and their family wish to thank their families, friends, church members and all of those they have never even met, for all of the support shown them in these past difficult months and for their continued support. The City of Fargo hopes this resolution further brings some peace to the Leininger family."
The matter was settled out of court, Johnson said.
"A lawsuit was never commenced against the city," he said.
A judge has ordered records of the agreement sealed because it involved juveniles, Johnson said.
He acknowledged the settlement matter or amount paid was never discussed in public by city commissioners. The Forum could find no court paperwork on the matter, either.
Amanda Leininger's 15-year-old sister was driving the car when it collided with oncoming traffic after entering a rut where the southbound lane meets the shoulder. A city crew was on its way to fix the rut when the crash happened.
Johnson said he couldn't discuss whether the city acknowledged wrongdoing in the agreement.
"The case has been settled, and the terms are sealed and confidential by order of the court. I think you can infer some things from those facts," he said.
Johnson said he received authorization from the Leininger family's attorney to disclose the settlement amount. A Leininger family member who acted as family spokesman after the accident did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Taxpayers ultimately will help pay for the settlement. The city is a self-insured entity, and claims are paid out of a reserve fund that is supported with dollars from several sources, including the city's general fund, investments and, in one case, proceeds from a bond sale, said City Administrator Pat Zavoral.
"Taxes aren't going to go up because of it," he said of the settlement.
Walaker referred questions about the settlement to the city attorney's office.
During Monday night's City Commission meeting, as Walaker talked about the city's budget woes, he said, "The case down south, the court has basically sealed that. That's another negative." He confirmed Wednesday that he was referring to the settlement.
The city also is preparing to pay out up to $1.5 million after a court decision against the city for overcharging on traffic fines.
Walaker referred to the two court cases, as well as a $663,000 hike in workers' compensation premiums, when talking about the budget and why the city couldn't afford to give employees a cost-of-living raise in 2010.
The city came under heavy fire after the fatal accident for what some said was a slow response to previous complaints about the rut, which was a factor in at least three crashes during the three days leading up to the fatal crash.
After the accident, the city underwent an internal staff review of how complaints are handled, Zavoral said.
"The procedures have changed and such that we're going to respond more quickly and maybe put a higher grade of barrier up" when complaints are made about road conditions, he said.