The Sheriff’s Department continues to be a key driver of expensive judgments and settlements paid by Los Angeles County, according to an annual report presented to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Nearly half of the $135.7 million in total litigation costs booked during the 2017-18 fiscal year — including judgments, settlements and attorneys’ fees and costs — were related to claims filed against the Sheriff’s Department. And the LASD total of $62 million is more than four times the cost incurred by the next closest department, which runs the county’s hospital system.
Ten big settlements of more than $2 million make up more than half of all the money spent to settle a total of 238 cases and the Sheriff’s Department was involved in three of those top 10.
The most expensive was a wrongful conviction lawsuit brought by Frank O’Connell, who served 27 years behind bars for a 1984 murder he said he didn’t commit. A judge ruled that detectives failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and released O’Connell and the county later settled the civil action for $15 million to be paid out over two years.
Two 2014 deputy-involved shootings were also among the larger settlements.
In one, settled for $2.97 million, a deputy shot his partner during a three-way struggle with Noah Aguilar after taking Aguilar’s gun away. Then the wounded partner killed Aguilar.
In another, a stabbing victim who was struck by bullet fragments fired by deputies aiming at his assailant was paid $2 million. The assailant was also killed and the county separately settled with his family.
A plaintiff in another deputy-involved shooting was awarded $3 million at trial. Emilio Amaya was killed during a search for a murder suspect when he walked into the room and pointed a gun at deputies.
Other big cases unrelated to the Sheriff’s Department included three medical malpractice cases settling for a total of $9.5 million. That included $3.9 million paid to a minor in a fight at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar who said medical personnel there failed to diagnose head trauma that resulted in seizures and a two-month-long coma.
Major auto liability cases cost the county $8.5 million in settlements and a judgment, including payments to a bicyclist struck and killed by a deputy who was texting while driving on Mulholland Highway in 2013. The family of entertainment attorney Milton Olin Jr. was paid $11.75 million, but most of that total was covered by insurance.
Despite the big payouts, the county’s litigation expenses were down for the first time in five years, showing a 7 percent year-over-year decrease. That includes a drop in law enforcement-related casees.
And while the expenses reflect the outcomes of claims and lawsuits filed several years ago, the number of new cases filed was near a decade low, according to the report.
Though hundreds of cases are settled based on the perceived risks of going to trial, the county’s lawyers won 54 percent of the cases they took to court in the 12 months ended June 30, 2018. They also prevailed in 27 of 28 appeals during that time period.
However, effective legal counsel does not come cheap. Nearly half of the total litigation costs was paid not to plaintiffs, but to lawyers for fees and costs.
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