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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

City may settle $316,000 in lawsuits from auto accidents caused by Ocala police officers

City officials will consider spending $316,000 to settle two separate lawsuits stemming from accidents caused by Ocala Police Department officers in 2021.

The settlements will be presented during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, July 2 at Ocala City Hall (110 SE Watula Avenue) by City Attorney William E. Sexton. In each case, the city will look to award at least $150,000 to avoid going to trial.

According to court records, the first incident took place on March 20, 2021. On that day, Tiffany Melkonian and Michael Secki claim that an Ocala Police Department vehicle being driven by Anastasios Hajoglou crashed into their vehicle “at or near the intersection of NW 1st Avenue in Ocala.”

In March 2022, Ocala-based King Law Firm filed a complaint on behalf of Melkonian in the fifth judicial circuit court for Marion County, accusing Hajoglou of operating his vehicle “negligently and carelessly” so that it “collided with the vehicle.” A month later, King Law Firm filed another lawsuit on behalf of Secki in the same case.

The law firm argues that its clients suffered “permanent bodily injury,” “lost wages,” and incurred other expenses and damages.

Ocala police officer Anastasios Hajoglou walks a suspect wanted for attempted murder to a patrol vehicle in February 2022. (Photo: Ocala Police Department)

“The losses are either permanent or continuing and [Melkonian] will suffer the losses in the future,” reads the first complaint.

According to city records, the parties mediated the case in October 2023, which resulted in an impasse. In anticipation of trial, which is scheduled for December 2024, the city engaged in further negotiations and “conveyed a tentative global offer of $166,000.” That offer was accepted by Melkonian and Secki.

In a third complaint that was also filed in March 2022, attorneys from Orlando-based law firm Morgan & Morgan argue their clients, Rachelle Williams and William H. Greene, Jr., were involved in a similar incident with a different officer working for the Ocala Police Department.

According to that lawsuit, Greene was driving a vehicle owned by a third party in the Summer of 2021, and Williams was riding as his passenger. The two claim they were struck “on NW 100th Street at or near the intersection of County Road 25A in Ocala,” by a vehicle being driven by Boyce Tucker Rainey “in the course and scope of his employment” for the Ocala Police Department.

Greene accuses Rainey of negligence and claims that, as a result of the accident, he suffered “bodily injury including a permanent injury to the body as a whole,” as well as several other damages associated with the incident. Williams claims she was also injured in the crash and will “suffer losses in the future” as a result of her injuries.

According to city records, before a scheduled mediation in June 2023, attorneys for the plaintiffs made a last demand to settle the case “for sovereign immunity limits of $300,000.”

“After thorough negotiations at mediation, the city’s final offer was a global offer of $125,000. The plaintiffs final demand at mediation was $270,000, and mediation resulted in an impasse,” reads a memo from Sexton, Ocala City Manager Peter Lee, and HR & Risk Management Director Devan Kikendall to councilmembers.

In anticipation of trial, the parties engaged in negotiations and an offer of “$150,000” was accepted by Williams and Greene.

Because both of the settlements are considered discretionary, approval is required from the Ocala City Council.

If city councilmembers approve the settlements, the plaintiffs will be issued checks for the amounts and have agreed to release the city of any further liability.

Both of the city’s memos say the city is liable for the incidents, citing the officers who were driving as having “violated the plaintiffs’ right-of-way.”

“Given the city’s apparent liability for the accident, the issue at trial would not be whether the city is responsible for the plaintiffs’ damages; rather, the issue would be the extent of the Plaintiffs’ damages,” reads the memo from city staff. “An agreement to settle this matter at this time will avoid the additional costs of continued litigation, including attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and other expenses, and will prevent the possibility of an adverse judgment at jury trial in excess of the settlement amount.”

The Ocala City Council meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 4 p.m.