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City to settle community service lawsuit

The sanitation truck that Alvin Trotter was riding on was reportedly traveling between 10 and 15 miles per hour when his body struck a telephone pole, throwing him off the vehicle and onto the pavement.

Not a high-speed collision, by any means, but still a damaging one.

“It doesn’t take a very high-speed impact with a telephone pole to break your pelvis,” Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson said.

The Law Department Nilson heads has recommended the city settle a lawsuit brought by Trotter for $75,000.

The settlement, which goes before the Board of Estimates on Wednesday, would end a legal saga that stretches back to Feb. 25, 2008, when Trotter chose community service rather than going to trial on marijuana possession charges.

Trotter originally lost his lawsuit when the city filed a motion for summary judgment in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The judge ruled Trotter was bound by a release he signed when he accepted the community service sentence.

But the Court of Special Appeals reversed that ruling in June, finding Trotter’s relationship to the city was akin to an employee/employer relationship. The release was therefore contrary to public policy and void.

Rather than continue litigating, Trotter’s attorney, Richard Winelander of Winelander & Cox PA, said his client would happily accept the settlement if the Board of Estimates approves it.

“Mr. Trotter has been going through this for close to four years and he wanted a resolution …,” Winelander said. “For him wanting to resolve the case now, I think it’s a fair settlement.”

Winelander noted that due to tort limits, the most Trotter could have gotten from the city is $200,000. He said the $75,000 settlement would about cover, “dollar-for-dollar,” Trotter’s medical bills of approximately $54,000 plus lost wages from his job as a carpenter.

Nilson estimated the lost wages were closer to $50,000, suggesting the city was getting a better than dollar-for-dollar deal on the settlement.

Nilson also noted that the city had an obligation to train and equip Trotter properly for his service work.

According to the Court of Special Appeals’ unreported opinion, Trotter, then 51, was told to report to the Bureau of Solid Waste to serve his 24 hours of community service and didn’t find out he’d be riding on a trash truck until he arrived. At that point he was issued a pair of gloves and essentially told to get on the back of the truck and hang on.

On his second day the truck was traveling through an alley when the accident occurred.

“I had my head turned to the back to keep from [tree and/or bush] limbs from sticking me in the face,” Trotter testified, according to the opinion. “And while I was turned to the back, the next thing I know, I was caught between the truck and the light pole and it threw me off the back.”

Trotter was left with a broken hip and, according to Winelander, other internal injuries.

Nilson said Trotter’s testimony raised questions about whether the city should have issued him goggles. Winelander said at the time of the accident, the trash truck driver was talking on his cell phone.

But those questions of negligence were moot at the appellate level, where the court focused on whether the release forms Trotter signed were valid.

“We conclude that Trotter was not a pure volunteer, and that he falls within the employer-employee exception to the validity of exculpatory agreements,” retired Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky wrote for the appellate court.

With that point of law determined, Winelander said, the next legal fight would likely have been whether Trotter should have filed a worker’s compensation claim. The settlement, if approved, will spare both sides that squabble.

“If I won, they’d appeal, and God knows when that would come back,” Winelander said. “If they won, he’d get nothing. Then I’d probably have to appeal.”