Los Angeles County paid out $91.5 million to satisfy judgments and settle lawsuits in fiscal year 2018-19, nearly one-quarter more than it spent the previous year, according to an analysis made available Tuesday.
That total doesn’t include another $57 million in legal fees and expenses related to those lawsuits.
The Litigation Cost Report was included on the Board of Supervisors agenda, but county lawyers asked to postpone discussion for two weeks.
Though the payments covered 256 lawsuits, just 14 of those cases made up nearly two-thirds of the total spent.
The biggest judgment — $7 million — stemmed from a 2008 melee at the Men’s Central Jail in which inmates lit fires, flooded toilets and shattered sinks in what plaintiffs characterized as a protest against excessive force.
Custody deputies severely injured five inmates when forcibly pulling them out of high-security units during the turmoil, according to the report. Plaintiffs testified that deputies used concussion grenades and stun guns, and punched and kicked inmates even when they were not resisting.
The bulk of that judgment was paid out to the plaintiffs’ attorneys for their fees and costs.
The Sheriff’s Department had the highest level of litigation expenses — $81 million including legal fees and costs — of all county departments. The total dwarfed that incurred by the Department of Children and Family Services, second on the list with $17 million in expenses.
Some of the most expensive settlements were paid to the families of individuals fatally shot by deputies — cases which accounted for 31% of all settlements in 2018-19.
However, the lawsuit generating the highest settlement payout — $15 million over two years — stemmed from the wrongful conviction of Frank O’Connell for the 1984 murder of maintenance man Jay French. O’Connell spent 27 years in prison on the say-so of one eyewitness.
In one of the two most costly judgments against DCFS, social workers removed a 15-month-old boy from his mother’s custody for neglect without a warrant or what the court ultimately could identify as exigent circumstances. The mother was awarded $6 million. In the other, a suit was filed against the county on behalf of a child for failing to detect and prevent her mother’s abuse. She was awarded $10.5 million, to be paid over multiple years.
Even as the county was paying out more to plaintiffs, it dropped its year-over-year spending on attorneys’ fees and costs. However, the trend of litigation does not seem to be working in the county’s favor. The 762 new lawsuits filed in 2018-19 was up 7% from the prior year.
At trial, the county prevailed more often than not and the Sheriff’s Department, for example, won five of the eight cases that went to trial in 2018-19. On appeal, the county did even better, winning 31 of 35 appeals.
The county also collected some money through legal challenges, including $51.7 million paid by Southern California Gas Co. in connection with the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak.
The board is expected to review the report on Feb. 18.