COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Columbus City Council authorized $1.7 million Monday to settle with two families in unassociated wrongful death lawsuits, each of which involved city public safety workers.
Both settlements — reached before either case could go to trial — include a denial of liability on the city’s behalf, according to a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office.
Before Monday, Council had authorized several other six-figure settlements in 2023 for Columbus Division of Police and Fire workers. That included $440,000 in an excessive force case, where a man said a 2018 Columbus police arrest performed on him resulted in a MRSA infection, and $225,000 for a woman who said she was sexually harassed by a former Columbus fire chief.
“These settlements are some of the worst moments for me,” Councilmember Shayla Favor said at the Council meeting Monday. “We understand that, generally, it is due to some grave error.”
$600,000 settlement in domestic violence death of Deborah Saenz
Deborah Saenz, then 32, called 911 on July 11, 2019, and told the emergency dispatcher her boyfriend was “beating her” and that he had “guns in his hands,” according to Franklin County court records.
Less than a full day later, Saenz’s boyfriend, 32-year-old Marcos Solis III, fatally shot her.
Solis, who called 911 on July 12, 2019, and told the dispatcher he shot his girlfriend, pleaded guilty to a lesser involuntary manslaughter charge, among other charges, in October 2022. A judge sentenced him to between 18 and 23 years in prison, according to court records.
But in July 2021, Saenz’s mother, Luzy Saenz, filed a lawsuit in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas against the city based on the hours between those two emergency calls. The lawsuit named five Columbus Division of Police officers and an emergency dispatcher, arguing they didn’t do enough to circumvent her daughter’s fatal shooting death.
When five officers arrived at the apartment on Genesee Avenue in Linden following the first 911 call, Saenz was crying and told at least some of them “she was scared of Solis,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged the officers saw a gun case and ammunition inside the apartment, and that Saenz and Solis, who is a convicted felon, both individually mentioned in conversation that Solis had been incarcerated before. Under Ohio law, a felony conviction bars an individual from possessing firearms.
But they did not run a routine Law Enforcement Automated Data System background check on Solis, and internally labeled Saenz as “mentally ill,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleged that Saenz again called 911 about 10 minutes after officers left but immediately ended the call — a “hang up” call that a Columbus emergency dispatcher failed to properly notify police of.
“Let me underscore: We do not know, and we will never know, what would have happened had the officers been more diligent,” said George Speaks, the city’s deputy public safety director.
With domestic violence runs and related homicides rising steadily in Columbus in 2023, Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant said Monday that the division is striving for better checks and balances.
“Unfortunately, that (domestic violence) is the majority of our runs,” Bryant said.
Throughout the entirety of 2022, Columbus saw seven domestic violence-related homicides, she said. Four and a half months into 2023, domestic violence was being investigated as the cause of eight homicides.
“We remain heartbroken by Deb’s untimely and tragic death. She was a wonderful and loving daughter, sister, aunt and friend. We think of her every day,” Saenz’s family wrote in an email statement Monday night.
The family wrote they wanted to see her case used to train future Columbus police officers, “especially (on) those calls in which the caller alleges the threat of guns, to be able to protect victims and potential victims of domestic violence.”
$1.1 million settlement in dehydration death of Danny James
By the time Columbus paramedics made it to his home on Dec. 9, 2017, Danny James had not left his bed for nearly a full week, according to Franklin County court records.
Wife Karen James refiled a wrongful death lawsuit in March 2021 against two paramedics who responded to her 911 call that day. She told them her husband, who was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, hadn’t eaten or drank since becoming bedridden and was no longer responding, court records said.
“(Paramedics) gave Danny virtually no care,” the lawsuit read. After seeing him in bed, they did not take him to a local hospital, incorrectly logging instead that he refused to be transported, according to court records.
James died the morning of Dec. 10, 2017.
“The family was content to move on and not have to relive this nightmare over and over,” said attorney Bart Keyes, of Columbus law firm Cooper Elliott. “The fact is: if the system fails, if one person is harmed or died, like they were here, that’s a failure that affects all of us.”
Speaks said Monday the paramedics’ mistakes contributed to James’ death. “In short, our medics were negligent,” he said.