Paralyzed Man’s Case is Awful and Yet not Really an Outrage

Chris Powell

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Wanting to be pious, people like to say that a financial value can’t be set on human life. But of course society calculates such value all the time.

Government does it when appropriating for medical care and public safety. Insurance companies and their customers do it when writing and purchasing policies. Lawyers and courts do it when litigating damage lawsuits.

This may seem insensitive and, at times, even cruel, but life has to go on and everything can’t be liquidated to redress a single casualty.

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So how much is Randy Cox’s former life worth now that he is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of the incident in June when he was in the custody of police in New Haven?

Cox was handcuffed and sitting in a police van without seatbelts when it stopped abruptly to avoid a crash, causing him to slide on a bench head-first into the van’s front wall, breaking his neck. It was captured on the van’s video system and quickly posted on the internet and seen worldwide.

Cox’s lawyers are suing for $100 million, one of them declaring: “There is no amount of money in damages that can compensate this man for the injuries he sustained.” But Cox’s other lawyer acknowledges that $20 million to $30 million might provide basic lifetime care for the paralyzed man, and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker wants the lawsuit to end with a settlement rather than a trial.

While as a matter of law the city may be solely responsible for what happens to people in the custody of its police, Cox alone is to blame for how he came to be in police custody.

He was at a block party and scaring people by brandishing a pistol, prompting a call to police. He seems to have been drunk.

Police video shows him approaching officers while holding a half-empty liquor bottle and refusing to respond when asked his name and if he is carrying anything else. Officers found the pistol tucked into his pants, concealed under his shirt. Since Cox had no permit to carry the gun, he was arrested, cuffed, and put into the van to be taken to police headquarters.

Apparently believing that Cox’s uncooperativeness arose from his intoxication, officers at headquarters treated him callously, video of which has prompted anger. But that callousness did not cause Cox’s injury, nor does racism seem to have motivated the callousness, since, while Cox is Black, so are several officers who dealt with him.

Instead the case seems to have been just more of the ordinary madness of urban underclass life, which easily can make those who have to work with it insensitive and cynical. Their cynicism is often justified by the revolving doors of criminal justice — Cox himself is a repeat offender — and the chronic failure of social work.

The good intentions of public policy have not yet alleviated the madness.

There is more madness in the outrage being instigated by Cox’s lawyers, as well as in their demand for $100 million in damages.

For no one tried to harm Cox, much less harm him because of his race. This case is not what Cox’s lawyers liken it to, the murder of George Floyd by racist police in Minneapolis. Indeed, just two years ago New Haven had a Black mayor who didn’t worry about the lack of seatbelts in police vans. Most city residents are poor and from minority groups, and city government strives to be the most politically correct in the world.

If Cox wins $100 million in damages from New Haven, the bill will come to about $770 per capita or more than $1,000 per adult. The city’s insurer likely will pay much of it but then strive to recover it from the city through higher premiums. Since the city is impoverished, state government subsidizes the city heavily and so will pay too, even as Connecticut’s economy has been lagging and continues to weaken even as the state’s unmet human needs are huge and growing.

Yes, Cox deserves enough compensation to recover what reasonably can be recovered of his life, and the demagoguery of his lawyers may be just a strategy for raising the political pressure on New Haven city government to be more generous in a settlement.

But lawyers who demagogue about justice while working on a contingency fee basis, confident that their target has plenty of insurance, are not seeking justice alone. The righteousness business can pay well.

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Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. (CPowell@JournalInquirer.com)