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Suing’s a Relatively Unsuitable Act for Laid-Back San Diegans

Times Staff Writer

San Diegans file fewer personal injury, property damage and wrongful death lawsuits per person than residents in any of California’s 19 other largest counties, according to a statewide study scheduled for release next month.

Although no one seems to know precisely why, the report found that San Diego County residents initiated 207 civil suits per 100,000 population--less than half the state average of 431 per 100,000.

Galley proofs of the Judicial Council of California’s 1985 annual report show that the highest number of lawsuits per capita during the 1983-84 fiscal year were filed in San Francisco County (650 per 100,000 population), followed by Los Angeles County (566), Orange County (481), Sacramento County (437) and San Mateo County (361).

The study, which is based on monthly filings recorded by county Superior Courts, marked the third consecutive year that San Diego County had placed last among the state’s 20 largest counties.

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State officials said they were at a loss to explain the difference between San Diego, the state’s third-largest county, and other large metropolitan areas, all of which ranked at or near the top in the number of filings.

But theories abound.

Interviews with dozens of lawyers, judges and legal experts throughout California revealed a wide variety of possible explanations for the low number of lawsuits:

- San Diegans are not as knowledgeable about their legal rights as residents of other metropolitan areas.

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“People here aren’t aware of what they’re really entitled to when they’re injured,” said local attorney Samuel Spital, who heavily promotes his personal injury and divorce practice in television advertisements. “I feel a substantial part of the population would not go to an attorney if they were not made aware of their rights.”

- Many of San Diego’s conservative residents would rather forget about a traumatic injury or death in the family than hire an attorney to fight a lengthy lawsuit.

“They’ve got a lot of retired Navy people who are friends of (President) Reagan,” said flamboyant San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, who has a law office on Ash Street in San Diego. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t believe in the courts or the criminal justice system. They just feel that you get along the best you can and trust Reagan and you’re fine.”

- People who are content and happy with their life style, particularly those in “America’s Finest City,” tend not to be very litigious.

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“Nobody is in San Diego who doesn’t want to be there,” said David R. Simmons, regional vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, which keeps track of automotive-related civil litigation in California. “They’re living happily except for lower salary schedules because they enjoy it. It’s a laid-back town.”

- San Diego lacks labor unions and heavy industries such as steel mills and auto plants, where many personal injury lawsuits originate.

“Personal injury is very much a blue-collar type of practice,” said San Diego attorney John Learnard. " . . . There’s a lot of working people involved. They are the ones who go to lawyers. I don’t think the conservative element, the professionals and businessmen, go to lawyers.”

- San Diego lawyers, despite the city’s size, are a small-town bunch who know each other on a first-name basis. This brings better communication between lawyers and more settlements.

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Harvey Neiman, a law professor at Western State Law School, said the local bar association historically has been distinguished by the “camaraderie” of its membership. “Lawyers in San Diego are not necessarily overly litigious,” he said. “They’re more settlement-oriented.”

- Attorneys are more likely to push for settlement than file a lawsuit because San Diego jurors are regarded as among the harshest and stingiest in the state.

Kent Raymonds, publisher of Jury Verdicts Weekly in Northern California, said that, when given a choice, most attorneys filing civil suits shun San Diego courts for ones in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Belli estimated that lawyers in San Diego typically settle out of court for one-third the amount of damages awarded by jurors for similar cases in other counties.

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“It’s a shame,” Belli said. “San Diego judges and jurors through the years have been minuscule in granting awards. You just don’t get justice in San Diego County. That’s the insurance man’s delight.”

Indeed, San Diegans enjoy lower automobile insurance rates than do many other areas of the state because of the small number of court cases.

Other experts in the legal profession said they were perplexed by San Diego’s last-place showing in the litigation index.

“To say that our people are less litigious than other people . . . I have no way to justify that,” said San Diego Superior Court Judge Mike Greer. “There’s no difference between people here and (in Los Angeles).”

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Hadley Batchelder, acting dean at Western State Law School, said, “It’s not because we’re not as eager to bring lawsuits or defend them. I think it has to be based on some demographic facts which are not all that clear.

“We’re no more conservative than people in Orange County. I don’t think you can attribute that to our laid-back society. They’re pretty damned laid back in other California communities as well.”

In addition, the difference in lawsuits filed is not the result of the number of lawyers who work in San Diego County. According to the State Bar of California, there are 5,968 active attorneys in San Diego County, or 300 per 100,000 population--roughly the same ratio found in other metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, which has 386 attorneys per 100,000. Only San Francisco, with 1,498 lawyers per 100,000 population, has significantly more attorneys.

Several lawyers questioned the accuracy of the annual report by the judicial council, which for years has collected statistics on lawsuits filed in Superior Courts across the state.

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Officials from the council and San Diego County Superior Court said they knew of no discrepancies in the way lawsuits are counted at the state and county levels.

The judicial council report found that San Diego was the only large metropolitan county to rank in the bottom half of the survey. Just ahead of San Diego County were San Joaquin County (208 civil lawsuits per 100,000 population), Monterey County (221), Stanislaus County (226) and Fresno County (246).

But the number of civil lawsuits filed in San Diego County has been increasing at a faster rate than in most other counties. For example, between 1981 and 1984, the rate of civil litigation in San Francisco and Fresno counties remained about even while the number of lawsuits filed in San Diego County jumped from 156 to 207 per 100,000 population.

The judicial council report came as no surprise to the Insurance Information Institute, which for several years has gathered data from the state on motor-vehicle-related civil lawsuits.

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Those figures show that, over the last five years, San Diego County ranked last or next-to-last among the 20 largest California counties. In fiscal years 1979-80 and 1980-81, only Monterey County had fewer automobile-related lawsuits.

Automobile litigation in California accounts for more than half of all personal injury, property damage and wrongful death suits.

As a result, San Diego has the lowest auto liability insurance rates of any large county in California, insurers said.

George Watts, president of Western Insurance Information Services in Santa Ana, said that, to a large extent, insurance rates depend on an area’s tendency to sue. Without the difference in civil litigation, Watts said, San Diegans would pay the same auto insurance rates as drivers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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According to estimates provided by State Farm Insurance, a 30-year-old married man who owns a 1984 Honda Accord four-door sedan and drives 10 miles to work would pay $603 yearly for full coverage in central San Diego, $1,074 in central San Francisco and $1,705 in central Los Angeles.

However, the disparity in civil lawsuits filed in San Diego compared to other areas of the state is not a bonanza for lawyers here.

Spital, the portly San Diego attorney who is best known for his television ads that tell viewers who have been injured in an accident to “Let Sam Do It,” said that area residents do not respond to his commercials the way they do in other large cities.

San Diegans who have been injured in accidents are more likely to be grateful that they were not killed than file a lawsuit, Spital said. He added that he gets discouraged at times when a San Diego client accepts a $25,000 settlement for a case that is easily worth $100,000 in damages.

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“They accept the $25,000 because they don’t want to make waves,” Spital said. “What we observe here is that it’s a community where a lot of people are conservative. It’s not in their way of life to file lawsuits.”

Civil Suits Filed in California’s 20 Most Populous Counties

SUITS PER RANKING IN 100,000 PREVIOUS YEARS POPULATION COUNTY 1983-84 1982-83 1981-82 STATEWIDE AVERAGE 431 1. San Francisco 650 1 1 2. Los Angeles 566 2 2 3. Orange 481 3 3 4. Sacramento 437 4 4 5. San Mateo 361 6 5 6. Alameda 346 7 9 7. Marin 329 5 6 8. Santa Clara 312 8 7 9. Sonoma 286 11 14 10. Riverside 284 10 10 11. Contra Costa 278 9 8 12. Kern 266 13 12 13. Ventura 266 14 19 14. Santa Barbara 260 15 15 15. Fresno 246 12 11 16. San Bernardino 232 16 17 17. Stanislaus 226 17 13 18. Monterey 221 18 18 19. San Joaquin 208 19 16 20. San Diego 207 20 20

Source: Judicial Council of California

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