Philadelphia taxpayers will pay $490,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that a man was badly injured when police subjected him to an abusive ride in a department van, sending him careening around inside until he broke his neck.
The city agreed last week to pay the money to resolve the suit brought by James McKenna after he was injured following a confrontation with an off-duty officer in Center City in 2011, according to his lawyer and attorneys for the city.
Handcuffed, but otherwise unrestrained, his suit says, McKenna was taken on a jolting and dangerous ride in the back of a police wagon. His experience echoed a practice that has a long and dishonorable tradition in Philadelphia.
He alleged that he was given what police once called "a nickel ride" - a way to punish unruly prisoners without actually laying a hand on them. The term dates back to the days when amusement park rides cost five cents.
Police said McKenna injured himself by pounding his head against the bar of his cell after he was arrested on simple assault charges after clashing with the off-duty officer in a bar. He was found not guilty.
In his lawsuit, McKenna said he did hit his head against the cell bars at one point. But he said that happened because he grew faint and his head began to droop after his neck was broken in the van ride.
In a story published in December, The Inquirer disclosed that hospital records showed that "arriving officers" told medical staff McKenna had been hurt during the ride to the hospital.
"This settlement is a vindication for him," McKenna's lawyer, Thomas J. Gibbons, said Tuesday.
McKenna, 36, could not be reached for comment. Lawyers for the city either declined to comment or did not return calls.
The Police Department did not respond to a written request asking whether the case had prompted changes in police transport procedures.
After a 2001 Inquirer series detailed several cases in which people were seriously injured - or even paralyzed - by erratic rides in police vans, then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney ordered the vehicles pulled from the streets and equipped with restraining belts.
The department has in more recent years equipped its vans with simpler devices - "grab belts," straps that run behind prisoners' backs as they sit on benches. There are no locking mechanisms; prisoners are expected to hold on.
Critics say these devices reintroduced the hazard that suspects could easily lose their grip, especially if they have been injured or were intoxicated or high.
McKenna's injuries included three broken neck vertebrae and two ruptured neck discs. After surgery and 11 days of hospitalization, including six in which he was handcuffed to a bed, McKenna still suffers from limited neck mobility and weakness, and numbness in his left arm and hand, his suit says.
The events that led to his injury took place just after midnight June 23, 2011.
Police say they arrested a drunk and belligerent McKenna after he punched a bartender.
McKenna denies that. He said a police officer jumped him from behind because he was annoyed at how McKenna spoke with some women at the bar.
He said that the officer summoned on-duty police, who arrived in a police wagon, and that the officer told his arriving colleagues, "F- this guy up." The officer has denied saying that.
McKenna said in an interview last year that he was put in the van handcuffed, but not strapped in with a seat belt. He said police accelerated and decelerated the wagon, knocking him to the floor four times.
After the last tumble, he said, he couldn't stand. "I couldn't muster the strength," he said.
In hospital records obtained by The Inquirer, medical workers wrote on his chart, "While being transported, pt. hit his own head against divider as reported by arriving officers."
Another hospital note says he "hit head on police car door."
However, another note read: "Mechanism of injury: banged head against cell in police custody hit head."
At trial, an officer testified that McKenna injured himself in a cell. "He banged his face multiple times off the iron steel bar, which caused a laceration, which caused an injury," the officer said.
As part of the lawsuit, Gibbons, McKenna's lawyer, presented an expert opinion from a doctor who said McKenna's injuries were far too serious to have been self-inflicted.
Gibbons said the driver of the van said in a deposition that he had never driven a police wagon before that night. Gibbons said this raised the possibility that poor driving, rather than malice, caused McKenna to be hurt.
Either way, he said, police were negligent. He said putting McKenna into the van unrestrained set the stage for him to be injured.