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Newton

Newton spends $427,203 on settlements

Falling trees and vehicle collisions by city employees accounted for most of the $427,203 in settlements that Newton paid out in the past three years.

Although two high-profile claims totaling more than $1 million were filed against the city in recent months by Police Department employees, these types of legal actions are rare, based on three years of data provided to the Globe by the city attorney’s office.

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Most of Newton’s payouts are more mundane in nature. Settlements over tree limbs falling on cars are common. Payments over collisions involving firetrucks, snowplows, or public works vehicles are even more frequent, and total half of all of its settlements.

Nobody was immune. School Committee member Jonathan Yeo received $500 to cover the damage caused by a tree limb falling on his car a few years ago. After having dinner at a Newton Centre restaurant, Yeo said, he and his wife walked out to their recently purchased Honda and discovered a broken branch had dropped on top of it.

“Mine was a typical case,” Yeo said. “I like city street trees; they really add to the neighborhoods. . .  But they need to be maintained.”

Sharon resident Michael Fine and his wife were in Newton for a meeting a few years ago when they returned to their car and noticed a group of police and firefighters.

Fine said he initially thought the authorities had surrounded his car because he had parked illegally. It turned out his parking was fine; the problem was that a firetruck had swerved to avoid a driver who ran a stop sign and hit his Audi, Fine said.

The accident cost the city $5,000, one of the pricier vehicle-damage payments by Newton in recent years.

“It was an expensive car,” Fine said. Of the experience, he said, “It was aggravating more than anything.”

The city also paid residents whose homes were damaged by sewer backups; another payment was due to someone who slipped and fell at Newton North High School.

The single most expensive settlement for Newton in recent years involved one of the city’s firefighters. Newton paid $150,000 to Richard Geary in 2009, two years after he was pinned under a runaway fire engine and seriously injured.

Donnalyn Kahn, the city solicitor,  said Newton, which is self-insured, keeps track of employees who get into multiple driving accidents. In some cases, the city disciplines its employees, either requiring them to take remedial driving lessons or assigning them to a different vehicle. But other issues may be at play in these accidents, including bad weather, she said.

Newton has settled one employee dispute in the past three years. After Peter Karg was fired from his position as the Election Commission’s executive secretary in 2006 over a botched petition signature count, he filed a claim alleging he had been wrongly discharged, and sought $500,000 in compensation.

The city settled with Karg in 2010 for about $15,000.

John Tocci, the lawyer representing Jeanne Sweeney Mooney, one of the two Police Department employees filing a claim against the city in recent months, said his client has a strong case.

Mooney, who was the police chief’s secretary, sent a letter to Newton officials in May demanding $600,000 for pain and suffering and damage to her reputation. Mooney said that she had been wrongfully accused of stealing money from the Police Department, and that the allegation was in retaliation for her complaints against her boss. Her letter led to a city investigation of then-chief Matthew Cummings, and to his eventual firing.

Mooney faces one charge of larceny of over $250. She has pleaded not guilty.

“We didn’t base our demand on what somebody may have gotten in a slip and fall, or a vehicle crash,” Tocci said. “It all depends on the circumstances.”

In October, the city also received a demand letter for $500,000 from Officer Dina Vacca Macnair.

Macnair said she was publicly humiliated by one of her superiors in the Police Department, Captain Christopher Marzilli, alleging that he had made numerous inappropriate comments about her weight and appearance while she was pregnant.

The Police Department should be a workplace free of harassment, said Robert Carp, MacNair’s lawyer. “That has not been the case,” Carp said.

Marzilli’s lawyer has stated that the police captain did not make the comments that have been alleged by Macnair.

Kahn, the city solicitor, said Newton had already launched an investigation into MacNair’s complaints in September, and is waiting for the report to be finished.

It was scheduled to be done by the end of last month, but was delayed by last week’s hurricane, she said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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