Chicago Police officers are not above the law.
Cavanagh Law Group attorneys Tim Cavanagh and Mike Sorich recently obtained a $20 million settlement against the city in a landmark wrongful death case brought by the families of Andrew Cazares and Fausto Manzera, two young men who suffered horrendous deaths after a drunk, off-duty Chicago Police detective drove onto the freeway and slammed into their car in 2009. The settlement was split evenly between both families. Cavanagh Law Group represented the Cazares family.
The disgraced former officer had a history of alcohol-related offenses, including two previous car crashes, but because those events never led to serious consequences, Det. Frugoli believed he could drink and drive without fear of repercussion.
The case not only represents a major victory for those who have experienced loss because of injustices stemming from the Chicago Police Department, but symbolizes both an acknowledgment of, and a refusal to enable, the department’s infamous “code of silence” in protecting officers accused of wrongdoing.
This successful case won by CLG on behalf of these families also encapsulates a sea change in how liability cases are handled for all of those who wear the Chicago Police uniform — whether on duty or off. No longer are the actions of an off-duty officer of no concern to the city.
“The City of Chicago are the ones that encouraged and gave Frugoli the impunity to act the way he did,” Cavanagh said. “He was an alcoholic, they knew he was an alcoholic, they knew he had driven drunk in the past. He was a young police officer in 1992, and from that moment on he knew that because he had the badge he could drive drunk and he could get away with it in the City of Chicago.”
Today, victims’ families can seek justice and win.
The Frugoli Case
In April 2009, off-duty Chicago Police Det. Joseph Frugoli drove drunk onto the Dan Ryan Expressway and struck Cazares’ vehicle, which was pulled over due to a flat tire near Roosevelt Road.
While a passerby rescued Frugoli from the wreck, which left him with minor injuries that allowed him to limp away from the scene. As the officer walked away, Cazares’ car burst into flames with the two men fatally trapped inside.
Upon being discovered wandering the streets by fellow officers, Frugoli was given medical attention but was not issued a sobriety test. However, a paramedic tending to Frugoli in the ambulance believed the detective was drunk. It was determined at the hospital Frugoli’s blood alcohol content was over four times the legal limit, 0.328 percent when he slammed into Cazares and Manzera.
As Cavanagh Law Group discovered, the deaths were only the latest in a pattern of alcohol-fueled bad behavior Frugoli had embroiled himself in over the years, and largely without consequences due to his status as a Chicago Police officer — and he had reason to believe that was true.
An admitted alcoholic, Frugoli had at least twice before been involved in car accidents in which he was suspected of driving drunk. Despite the fact that one of those two crashes, which occurred just two days apart in January 2008, involved Frugoli slamming his police car into a concrete wall, the officer was never disciplined or given tests to determine his BAC at the time of the accidents.
Only once did Frugoli receive discipline from the department: after a bar fight in 1992 in which a drunken Frugoli terrorized a South Side bar before declaring, “No one messes with the Frugolis.” A sergeant followed Frugoli, but allowed him to drive home and did not administer a field sobriety test. For that incident, Frugoli was ultimately given a 5-day suspension.
However, this information was only made public during Frugoli’s own testimony on the witness stand. The defense did not turn those records over during discovery, solidifying CLG’s case that the city was deliberately covering for its officer.
The late discovery and questions surrounding why it was not turned over as evidence at the proper time exemplifies the epitome of the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence” — not only the silence from Frugoli’s superiors in department who failed to hold him accountable for dangerous behavior or compel him to seek professional help for his alcoholism, but also silence from the city, who ignored the rules of discovery in favor of their client, tarnishing the very justice system it seeks to protect.
Knowing it had been caught withholding critical information, city attorneys agreed to settle at $10 million per family and the settlement was later approved by Chicago’s City Council.
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CLG Case Puts Officers On Notice
While the victims’ families can now focus on healing, CLG will continue to press for answers on why Frugoli’s 1992 drunken bar brawl was withheld from the plaintiffs. The settlement itself is an acknowledgment of the Chicago Police’s culpability in failing to address the alcoholism that led to Frugoli killing two young men but does not satisfy the questions surrounding a systemic cover-up of police abuses. To accept the settlement as the end of the story without requiring an explanation as to why the 1992 fight was not revealed earlier would be to further inflict injustice upon the victims’ families and to accept a legal system which enables officers to act with impunity.
This monumental case signifies a growing movement behind exposing and dismantling the “code of silence” that for too long has silenced victims and justice while shielding bad officers.
“The case was never just about Joe Frugoli,” Cavanagh said. It was about not only shining a spotlight on the infamous “code of silence,” but now focuses on a federal judge hearing why the city’s Corporation Counsel Office has “had problems in producing evidence repeatedly,” including the over 100 documents withheld in his case, he said.
“It was really the production of these documents near the end of our case that was the smoking gun that forced the City of Chicago to resolve this case for the record-breaking amount of $20 million,” Cavanagh said. “It’s not the only case where documents have been withheld...it’s happened too many times, and too often. This family was almost denied a fair trial.”
“It’s our hope this kind of case is going to send notice to all police officers that they can’t get away with illegal activity, whether they’re on duty or off duty.”
The Hon. Judge Virginia M. Kendall of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division presided in the case of Cazares and Manzera v. Frugoli, Case No. 13-CV-5626. The Manzera family was represented by Cooney and Conway.