The City of Santa Monica recently settled the last outstanding claims related to child abuse at the Police Activities League and the size of the settlement, both in terms of victims and total payment, ranks the case as among the worst instances of abuse in memory.
Eric Uller was accused of abusing young boys between the late 1980s and early 2000s while he was employed by the City and volunteered in the Police Activities League (PALs), a city owned nonprofit. He committed suicide before his trial in 2018 and Santa Monica will pay about $230 million in total to more than 200 victims.
The settlement is unusual for its sheer size with only a handful of other lawsuits rising to a comparable number of victims or total payment. Two local universities have had similar cases recently. The University of California system settled 200 claims of abuse against women for a total of $243.6 million. In 2021, USC settled over 700 claims of abuse against women for $1.1 billion. National scandals such as abuse in the Catholic Church or in the Boy Scouts are huge cases but it’s rare to fine a case where a single suspect was able to abuse so many people for so long.
“It’s very difficult to find a similar case where you had someone that worked for a city or police department for so long,” said Dave Ring with the Manhattan Beach lawfirm Taylor & Ring. Ring represented some victims in the first round of settlements and said changes to California law opened up the possibility for Uller victims to sue after the statue of limitations was increased.
“These victims received significant compensation for the significant harm that was done to them,” he said.
According to Ring, settlements of this type are different from a class action suit that makes specific and formulaic payouts to victims. Instead, the City agreed to a lump sum settlement with each group of victims and then each individual sat down with a retired judge to tell their story.
Ring said the process of talking to the judge is an important part of the process as it provided the victims with validation for their experience.
“It gave most of them closure,” he said. “Most of them appreciated the fact that something was finally done about it. The compensation certainly helped them to make their lives more stable and get out of whatever difficult situations they might be in financially and for the most part it was certainly a positive thing for them.”
He said most of the victims are now adults in their 40s and many have had difficult lives with significant emotional issues as a result of their abuse. He said the judge makes a determination on the specific amount paid to each victim based on their personal experiences.
“There were a lot of tears on that conference room table, it’s very emotional, heart wrenching, the facts of some of these cases,” he said.
Ring said the city deserved some credit for choosing to spare the victims the trauma of a trial even if the decision was financially motivated.
“The City of Santa Monica didn’t force these victims through years of litigation which a lot of other entities did which puts them through hell,” he said. “They said they wanted to do the right thing and try to resolve them.”
Ring said if the cases had actually gone to trial, the city would have been “destroyed” in court given the facts of the case and while the victims are better off without reliving their abuse in public, the lack of a trial means definitive answers about who knew what and when will likely never emerge.
“Because the case did settle without any discovery, we’re never really going to know the full story of what the City of Santa Monica knew and they knew a lot,” he said. “If people were deposed and had to answer questions under oath, it would not be good for the city. I think we learned the tip of the iceberg about what they knew about this guy.”
Officials have said the settlement payments won’t impact current levels of city service. In anticipation of the payments, the city has been working to set aside year end surpluses when possible and boost reserve funds.
To make the payments, City Hall will draw down reserves in the general fund, suspend a substantial portion of Measure GSH funds to affordable housing through 2024, borrow against the general fund portion of the Housing Trust Fund, borrow from the general fund portion of the workers compensation fund, and borrow from the water fund. Santa Monica is also engaged in a lawsuit with its insurance company to recoup some of the settlement costs.
Some city properties will be sold to help cover the city portion but so specific piece of property is earmarked for this purpose.