The cost of lawsuits against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jumped 50% from 2014 to 2015 — an increase driven largely by multimillion-dollar payouts in excessive-force and jail death cases.
The rising cost of the department’s litigation contributed to an overall increase of 24% in county spending on lawsuits, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Office of the County Counsel.
All told, the study found that the county’s litigation expenses reached $118.9 million in fiscal year 2014-15, up from $95.6 million the fiscal year before and from the previous five-year average of $105.2 million.
The amount includes $59.9 million in judgments and settlements as well as $59 million in costs and fees for private attorneys and some in-house counsel.
Hilda Solis, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement that the increase is “an urgent call for introspection and action.”
She added that she was “particularly concerned” with the costs of defending the Sheriff’s Department in excessive-force and officer-involved shooting cases.
“Every cent the county spends on litigation is precious funding that we cannot use to house the homeless, promote better health and wellness for children, upskill our workforce and provide countless other needed services to our communities,” Solis said.
The Sheriff’s Department has historically accounted for the largest share of the county's lawsuit costs. Last year, those expenditures jumped from $40.7 million in 2014 to $61 million, according to the analysis.
The county was on the hook for several large settlements and judgments involving the department, the largest of which was a $6-million judgment paid out in a lawsuit brought by the parents of Robert Thomas Jr., 21, who was shot and killed by a deputy in Willowbrook in 2010.
The county also paid a $5.3-million settlement to the family of Jose de la Trinidad, an unarmed man who was fatally shot in Compton in 2012, and $4 million to settle a lawsuit related to an inmate's suicide at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
In a separate report, county Chief Executive Sachi Hamai largely blamed “excessive force claims dating back several years” for the increase in law enforcement related payouts. She noted that fewer claims were filed in 2015.
Capt. Christopher Reed, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, made a similar point, noting that the number of law-enforcement-related cases declined from 176 to 147 during the proceeding two years.
“A significant portion of the increase in legal costs resulted from a small number of cases which date back several years,” he said in a statement. “Although the dollar amount of the highest cases has increased, the number of incidents has actually declined.”
John Sweeney, the attorney who represented Thomas’ family as well as other people in police-shooting and excessive-force cases, said he has noticed a trend of increasingly large judgments. He partly attributed the trend to the prevalence of cellphone video footage that can contradict authorities’ accounts.
“It’s been a 30-year process on these cases,” Sweeney said. “It was very difficult to win these cases back then, because the Sheriff’s Department had a facade that they could do no wrong, they didn’t lie, the reports they wrote up were truthful.... The public has now seen that these officers do, in fact, make up stories to cover themselves.”
Sweeney said the county had passed up multiple chances to settle the Thomas case and others that ended in large judgments.
The Department of Health Services, which runs the county’s hospitals, had the second-highest legal costs. It spent $19 million on litigation last year, down from $20.8 million in 2014.
The cost to the county of workers’ compensation claims also rose from $342.2 million in 2014 to $359.3 million last year. The Sheriff’s Department made up the largest share of those payouts as well, with $123.7 million in 2015, up from $110.6 million the year before.
Supervisors are scheduled to discuss the litigation expenditures at a meeting next week.