City Lawyers Say Workload Is Too Heavy : Civil law: Members of liability division say in petition that they need more support staff. The complaint comes at a time when the cost of settlements is soaring.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the city facing an explosion in costly legal settlements, more than half of the lawyers in the city attorney's civil liability division have signed a petition saying they "can no longer competently and adequately represent the best interests" of the city, citing heavy workloads and insufficient support staff.

The petition, dated Aug. 17 but not delivered to City Atty. James K. Hahn until Tuesday, was signed by 28 of the 40 lawyers in the department that defends the city against liability lawsuits ranging from automobile accidents to wrongful deaths, civil rights abuses and sidewalk slips-and-falls.

Payouts in those cases are now running at a record pace. In the past two years, settlement costs have more than doubled. After holding steady at about $15 million annually through the 1980s, settlements jumped to $34 million in fiscal 1989-1990, according to city records.

Less than two months into the 1990-1991 fiscal year, the city has paid out about $20 million in liability settlements, according to city figures compiled by The Times.

John Emerson, Hahn's executive assistant, acknowledged that there has been a long-running dispute over working conditions in the civil liability division, but denied that the situation is affecting the city's legal representation or is a factor in the rising settlement costs.

In their petition, the lawyers asked for a "sufficient" but unspecified number of attorneys, legal secretaries, law clerks and paralegals, state-of-the-art office equipment and office space adequate to support the increased staff.

"In our view, the city is adequately and well represented," said Emerson. The division, he said, wins about 70% of the cases that go to trial, a rate he called "doing very well." However, many cases do not go to trial.

The sudden rise in legal settlements, he said, could be partly the result of "fast track" court reforms implemented two years ago that bring an unusually high number of cases to the trial and settlement stage at once. "It's like collapsing five years worth of cases into two to three years," said Emerson.

He said the unusually high costs of settling cases recently also reflects the long-term trends of more litigation and higher individual settlements. "We're in a litigation explosion and the city is a deep-pocket," or target for liability lawsuits, Emerson said.

The petition was addressed to John T. Neville, a senior assistant city attorney and head of the civil liabilities division.

"I have absolutely no comment," Neville said. "None whatsoever."

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Finance and Revenue committee approves payouts, said he is concerned about the jump in settlement costs, but feared that the problems run deeper than working conditions. Many of the most expensive cases, Yaroslavsky said, could have been avoided if city employees simply did their jobs correctly.

"By and large I believe we get good (legal) representation by the city attorney's office," said Yaroslavsky. "I also believe they are overworked and under great stress."

But more staff, he said, may not solve the "liability crisis" that the city is suffering.

The city attorney's office has received one of the largest increases in staff of any major city department in the past decade. Since fiscal 1983-1984, staffing has grown by 50%, according to figures compiled by Yaroslavsky's office.

None of the lawyers who signed the petition could be reached to expand on the list of demands, or to say what their next step might be.

Emerson said the lawyers are attempting to "escalate this into a political issue," by distributing the petition around City Hall.

"They've just got to understand that (the city) is in a budget crunch," said Emerson.

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