Guard rejects settlement bid by Kennedy

Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy has offered $25,000 to a woman he shoved at the Los Angeles airport in March, but she has turned it down.

The woman's lawyer said in a letter to Kennedy Friday that "settlement will not occur at that level" and that she would file suit in Los Angeles Superior Court "forthwith" if the congressman did not improve his offer.

With Kennedy unwilling to budge, both sides suggested yesterday that the case was very likely headed for court.

Experts said that a trial in the nation's second-largest media market could expose Kennedy to days of unflattering publicity at a time when his star is rising in Congress. But some said that the woman's rebuff of Kennedy's offer could backfire if she fails to prove to a jury that Kennedy seriously hurt her.

Kennedy pushed the woman, Della D. Patton, an airport guard, on March 26 in a late-night dispute over the size of his luggage. Kennedy had been rushing to catch a flight to Boston after an Oscar night fundraiser. The incident was captured on a surveillance videotape.

Patton, 58, says Kennedy injured her shoulder, and her lawyer said yesterday that she was still out of work and seeing a doctor for traumatic arthritis.

Los Angeles officials declined to press charges against Kennedy, instead ordering him to an informal hearing in May in which he apologized to Patton.

Patton first threatened to sue Kennedy just days after the incident. Some settlement talks followed, but Kennedy's $25,000 offer Thursday was the first he has put in writing.

Kennedy "has felt very badly about what has happened," his lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, wrote in a letter faxed to Patton's lawyer that day. "Because of this, he asked me to explore a settlement with you. In this vein and in a spirit of generosity, I asked you to take to your client the offer to set her right with a year's salary of $25,000."

That figure, he said, was "based on the congressman's concern, not an assessment of real damage or injury."

He repeated Kennedy's long-standing assertion that Patton has exaggerated the details of their encounter and was not seriously injured.

Kennedy aides said that he made the offer over the objections of his lawyers, who felt the amount was excessive and worried about copycat lawsuits. "They thought it was too high a figure," Kennedy's chief of staff, Anthony Marcella, said yesterday. "But he felt it was a decent thing to do and would hopefully bring a close to this whole chapter."

Patton's Los Angeles lawyer, George L. Mallory Jr., faxed a response Friday rejecting the offer. His letter, like Lowell's, was obtained by The Journal.

Though Mallory does not discuss Patton's injuries, he suggests that Kennedy is responsible for her dismissal from her job at the Los Angeles International Airport, where she screened passengers and their carry-on luggage before departure. "While the country is moving from welfare to work," Mallory wrote, "this incident has caused my client to move from work to welfare."

The Journal reported in May that Patton was fired after her employer, Argenbright Security, learned that she had lied on her job application about a past criminal record. The company has denied any connection between the Kennedy incident and her dismissal.

In an interview yesterday, Mallory declined to elaborate on his letter. But he voiced concern about anonymous leaks to the media. "It's real clear to me there's a specific strategy on the part of someone connected with Congressman Kennedy to release information in order to try the case in the press," he said.

Kennedy's lawyer says in his letter that Patton had demanded a settlement equal to 10 years of her salary -- or $250,000. Mallory denied making "any official demand" and declined yesterday to name an acceptable settlement figure.

In his letter, he suggested that the parties perhaps meet with a mediator. But yesterday, Mallory sounded less hopeful about the prospects for an out-of-court settlement. "If it's not a case that we can resolve, it's a case 12 people can hear about and they can make a decision."

Kennedy, who turns 33 on Friday, is worth $1 million to $2 million, according to Roll Call, a Washington, D.C., newspaper that for many years had ranked him among the 50-wealthiest Congress members.

Personal injury lawyers said yesterday that they could not evaluate the $25,000 offer without knowing Patton's medical costs and whether her injuries will prevent her from working again -- information that has not been made public. If her injuries are permanent, they said, $25,000 may indeed be too low to entice her to settle.

Experts said that a settlement would spare Kennedy intense media coverage and the uncertainties of a jury trial. "It's behind you, it's done," said Robert D. Oster, a civil lawyer who is president of the Rhode Island Bar Association. "And once something is done, people tend to forget about it."

Others said that a trial could be risky for Patton as well. A jury, for instance, could take a dim view of a woman who sold her story to The National Enquirer, as Patton did, before calling the police. "Juries are very critical these days," said John N. Calvino, a personal injury lawyer in Providence. "If they think this lady is a soldier of fortune, they could give her nothing."