LA County paid out nearly $1 billion in claims last year, reports show

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

LA County paid out nearly $1 billion in claims last year, reports show

LA Politics, Homepage News

Rebecca Ellis
Keri Blakinger

February 7, 2024

The cost of defending Los Angeles County and its army of sheriffs, firefighters, social workers and doctors from lawsuits has skyrocketed over the past fiscal year, according to twin reports released this week.

The annual review of the province’s legal tabs, which tracks payouts made between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023, shows the province spent $257 million on settlements and judgments, three times as much as the year before .

Defense costs for the Sheriff’s Department, which has handled a slew of high-dollar cases, reached $150 million, about double what it had cost the year before.

And the amount the province spent on total claims, including workers’ compensation cases and related legal costs, was more than $982 million. That’s about 2% of the county’s operating budget and more than the county budgeted this year for the Department of Animal Care and Control, the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office combined.

County officials point to several factors contributing to the dramatic increase in litigation spending: the rising costs of hiring outside attorneys, the resolution of cases stalled during the pandemic and a series of extremely costly settlements, many of which are the result of alleged misconduct within the Sheriff’s Department.

Of the thirteen largest settlements, ten involved the Sheriff’s Department.

Once again, LA County taxpayers are left footing the bill for the sheriff’s office due to law enforcement negligence, said Megan Castillo, coordinator of the Reimagine LA Coalition, which advocates

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Last year’s heaviest legal charges stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 2010 over strip-search practices at the women’s prison, where deputies routinely forced female inmates to expose their genitals in large groups during mass strip searches.

In 2019, the court approved a $53 million settlement on behalf of 87,937 women who were searched a total of 421,718 times between March 2008 and January 2015.

The Times previously reported that at the time this was the largest settlement payout ever recorded in the province’s history, although the province has admitted no wrongdoing. The Sheriff’s Department stopped routinely searching female inmates in April 2016 when it began relying on body scanners for screening.

The payout is included

that of the province

The more than $17 million settlement was the second of three installments agreed in court.

Another colossal payout involved a high-profile case: the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

After the 2020 wreck, reporting from The Times revealed that several deputies and firefighters had shared graphic images of the crash scene and the remains of the victims. Then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva admitted that eight officers took or shared photos and that he ordered the images destroyed.

In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester, whose wife and daughter died in the crash, filed suit. A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and last year the county agreed to pay nearly $20 million to the Chester family and $28.85 million to the Bryant family.

Villanueva, who was still in office at the start of the budget year and during some of the incidents that culminated in lawsuits, said the board and several oversight bodies were responsible for the rising costs of lawsuits due to their extensive campaign to improperly appoint deputies to demand. gangs had targeted the Sheriff’s Department.

Nearly every case filed now involving violence or detention involves an allegation of alternate gang conduct, despite no evidence to support it, Villanueva told The Times in an email on Tuesday. As a result, any increase in legal costs is caused by the reckless behavior of the Supervisory Board and its appointees.”

Joanna Schwartz, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who studies police misconduct lawsuits, said the fact that the county has spent $150 million on lawsuits by the Sheriff’s Department raises questions about what analysis the county does after a settlement to to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not diverted in the same way. way next year.

What analysis have they done to assess which stations are more likely to be sued than others, or which types of allegations are more likely to be the subject of lawsuits? she said. That’s the analysis any private company would want to make when faced with $150 million in damages over the course of a year.

Departments must complete corrective action plans after major settlements to investigate whether there were policy errors that could cause a similar incident to occur again. But Schwartz said the plans she reviewed appear weak, too fixated on what went wrong in that specific incident rather than examining larger trends.

“I don’t think that analysis is happening in Los Angeles County to the extent that it should be happening,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said the agency is trying to correct course after lawsuits.

While lawsuits are always a concern for the department, we are committed to improving our training, policies, practices and procedures to limit future lawsuits, the spokesperson said, adding that it is not unusual for the department to act for public safety reasons. sees more lawsuits than others. responsibilities

In November 2022, the Board of Supervisors approved more than $47 million in settlements in misconduct cases by sheriff’s deputies during a single meeting.

One came in the case of Andres Guardado, a teenager who was shot five times in the back by a sheriff’s deputy in 2020 after a brief foot chase in Gardena. His murder sparked protests and a lawsuit in which his parents alleged that sheriff’s deputies killed him in an attempt to join a deputy gang.

The lawsuit was settled for $8 million, but the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute any of the deputies involved. Instead, they were both sent to federal prison earlier that year for an unrelated incident, when they kidnapped a skateboarder and tried to frame him on a drug charge.

At least two of the other settlements approved at that same 2022 board meeting also resulted in hefty payouts, but there were no criminal charges against the deputies, a pattern criticized by activists and regulatory officials who say it allows problems like deputy gangs to continue to grow within the organization. the Department.

No one is convicted, said Helen Jones, a community organizer whose son, John Horton, died in solitary confinement at Mens Central Jail in 2009. If they start convicting these officers and holding them accountable, it will mean fewer lawsuits.

After seeing photos of her son’s corpse splattered with blood, she sued the county, saying she had settled for $2 million. She said there were never any criminal charges.


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