Riverside County supervisors Tuesday unanimously adopted a modified approach to handling deficiencies within agencies that trigger lawsuits, including a requirement that departments pay claims out of their own budgets if they fail to make changes to improve operations.
The revised liability exposure policy stemmed from Board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Jeffries’ request for refined methods to stave off civil litigation, which cost the county $154.3 million in settlements or negative judgments between fiscal years 2013-14 and 2017-18, according to Executive Office figures.
“This (revised) process is a little more lenient than I would have liked, but I’ll give it a try,” Jeffries said before casting his vote.
Almost exactly a year ago, the board authorized the formation of a Risk Management Steering Committee for the purpose of monitoring liability claims and assisting agencies with preventing or reducing exposure.
Under the revamped policy, the committee will continue its monitoring role but will increase efforts to mitigate liabilities by deploying “loss prevention” teams to conduct “root cause” analyses of what prompted civil actions and identify “corrective” measures that need to be implemented.
According to the Executive Office, if an agency demonstrates that it has made strides in removing systemic risks, all liability payouts associated with the civil claims that instigated the loss prevention action will be covered by the county’s risk management fund or insurance.
However, if an agency does not show that it has implemented corrective measures, any payouts will have to come straight out of that agency’s fiscal year budget. Department heads unhappy with a committee decision will have the option of appealing to the board, in open session, for a different determination.
“We’ll do everything we can to make certain corrective actions are made,” Department of Human Resources Assistant Director Mike Bowers told the board.
He said corrective steps could include changes in employee training, updating departmental policies and purchasing new equipment.
“All county departments have a role to play in the safety and security of our employees and community members,” county CEO George Johnson said. “These new risk management controls will reduce the county’s legal costs and create a safer environment in which we conduct county business.”
Under the revised policy, the Executive Office will issue an annual report — with the first one due in September — tracking liability claims and providing the board an overview of successes and failures, for the sake of transparency.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department had the largest liability claims in county government during the five-year period ending June 30, 2018, totaling $92.4 million.
Public works agencies, including the Transportation & Land Management Agency and Department of Waste Resources, were a distant second, with $33.88 million in aggregate claims, while the Riverside University Health System was next highest on the list with just over $20 million in claims that were resolved in trials or out-of-court settlements.
The Executive Office noted that the county is confronted with an average 1,100 new claims annually — 85 percent of which are resolved without any draw-down on the risk management pool or insurance.
In the last five years, county attorneys or private lawyers retained by the county succeeded in having 17 lawsuits tossed and 48 motions for summary judgment go in the county’s favor.
In the last 14 months, seven civil cases have gone to trial with the county as a defendant, and six resulted in favorable judgments for the county, according to the Executive Office.
Data indicated that in calendar year 2018, lawsuits against the Department of Public Social Services resulted in the highest settlement costs — $12.41 million.
In one of those cases, the agency’s child welfare division was sued after it was discovered that a 15-year-old Hemet girl whose home was investigated by social workers had been repeatedly raped by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, causing her to become pregnant.
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