Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Los Angeles County paid out $59 million in 2014-15 to cover its lawyers’ fees and costs — almost as much as the $60 million as it paid to residents alleging excessive force by sheriff’s deputies, medical malpractice at county hospitals, employment discrimination and other wrongdoing, officials reported Tuesday.

Those legal fees — which include in-house and outside counsel — were up about 7 percent from the prior year, Litigation Cost Manager Steven Estabrook told the Board of Supervisors.

As for their track record, of the 25 cases that went to trial, county attorneys won 64 percent of the time.

But the vast majority of county claims settle out of court, with attorneys typically citing the risks and uncertainties of litigation.

Attorneys recommended payments to settle 233 cases and cleared 169 others without any payment to the claimants, according to Estabrook.

The litigation manager said the county paid its contract counsel 5 percent more in fees last year, even while lawyers on the county payroll generated 3 percent less in total fees. Estabrook didn’t say whether the variances were due to rates billed or total hours spent handling cases.

The Sheriff’s Department alone keeps plenty of lawyers busy, accounting for half of all 2014-15 litigation costs.

Of all costs, “none rose as much as excessive force,” Estabrook told the board.

The county paid $6 million to the family of 21-year-old Robert Thomas Jr., shot and killed in Willowbrook by sheriff’s deputies in 2010, and $5.3 million to the family of Jose de la Trinidad, an unarmed man shot to death in 2012 by deputies in Compton.

A jury awarded another $3.1 million to a sheriff’s deputy terminated because he was investigating his fellow deputies’ potential involvement in drug trafficking and a homicide.

Estabrook pointed out that most of the cases being settled last year had occurred 3 1/2 years ago on average, before reforms in the Sheriff’s Department and the election of Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

The number of excessive force cases filed against the LASD has dropped by 20 percent over the last two years, though claims overall went up last year, the litigation manager said.

Supervisor Hilda Solis urged everyone to keep their eye on the problem.

“We’re going in a better direction, but we need to continue to have our foot on the pedal,” Solis said.

The Department of Health Services ranks second among county departments in total litigation costs, with $19 million in payouts and attorneys’ fees and costs. That’s more than double any department other than LASD.

About two-thirds of that total was generated by malpractice claims and about two-thirds was attributable to County-USC Medical Center.

Big payouts — 12 cases totaling more than $1 million — accounted for more than half of the total $60 million paid in settlements and judgments, according to Estabrook’s report.

–City News Service

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