L.A. County legal spending skyrocketed to $1 billion last year, as Sheriff’s Department settlements balloon

Vanessa Bryant settled for $28.85 million after first responders shared photos of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant.
Vanessa Bryant settled for $28.85 million after first responders shared photos of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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The costs to defend Los Angeles County — and its army of sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, social workers and doctors — against lawsuits skyrocketed in the last fiscal year, according to twin reports released this week.

The annual tally of the county’s legal tab, which tracks payouts made between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, found the county spent $257 million on settlements and judgments — triple what it spent the year before.

The cost to defend the Sheriff’s Department, which settled a slew of big-dollar cases, ballooned to $150 million — roughly double what it had cost the year before.


And the amount the county spent on overall claims — including worker compensation cases and related legal fees — was more than $982 million. That’s about 2% of the county’s operating budget — and more than the county budgeted this year for its animal care and control department, district attorney and public defender combined.

L.A. County will pay $700,000 to a public radio journalist who was slammed to the ground and arrested by deputies while covering a 2020 protest.

Nov. 8, 2023

County officials point to several factors contributing to the dramatic rise in litigation spending: the increasing costs of hiring outside lawyers, the resolution of cases that stalled during the pandemic and a run of extremely costly settlements, many stemming from alleged misconduct within the Sheriff’s Department.

Of the top 13 settlements, 10 involved the Sheriff’s Department.

“Again, L.A. County taxpayers are having to foot the bill for the sheriff on law enforcement negligence,” said Megan Castillo, a coordinator for the Reimagine LA Coalition, which advocates for alternatives to incarceration.

One of the heftiest litigation costs last year stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 2010 over strip search practices in the women’s jail, where deputies routinely forced female inmates to expose their genitals in large groups during mass strip searches.

In 2019, the court approved a $53-million settlement on behalf of 87,937 women who were searched a total of 421,718 times between March 2008 and January 2015.

The Times previously reported that it was then the largest settlement payout on record in county history, though the county did not admit wrongdoing. The Sheriff’s Department stopped routinely strip-searching female inmates in April 2016, when it began relying on body scanners for screening.


The payout included in the county’s litigation report — more than $17 million — was the second of three installments agreed to in court.

Another colossal payout centered on a high-profile case: the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

After the 2020 wreck, reporting by The Times showed that several sheriff’s deputies and firefighters had shared graphic images of the crash scene and the victims’ remains. Then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva admitted eight deputies took or shared photos, and that he ordered that the images be destroyed.

In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester — whose wife and daughter died in the crash — filed suit. A jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, and last year the county agreed to pay nearly $20 million to the Chester family and $28.85 million to the Bryant family.

Villanueva, who was still in office for the beginning of the fiscal year and during several of the incidents that turned into lawsuits, said the board and various oversight entities were to blame for the rising cost of litigation because of their “extensive campaign to falsely claim deputy gangs were running roughshod” over the Sheriff’s Department.

“Almost every case filed now involving force or detention carries with it an allegation of deputy gang behavior, in spite of no evidence to support it,” Villanueva told The Times Tuesday in an email. “As a result of this, any increase in litigation costs is caused by the reckless behavior of the Board of Supervisors and their appointees.”


Joanna Schwartz, a professor at UCLA School of Law who studies police misconduct lawsuits, said the fact that the county spent $150 million on Sheriff’s Department litigation raises questions about what analysis the county does after a settlement to ensure taxpayer money isn’t drained the same way next year.

“What analysis have they done to assess which stations are more likely than others to be sued or what types of allegations are more likely to be the subject of lawsuits?” she said. “That’s the analysis that any private company that had $150 million in damages levied against it in the course of a year would want to do.”

Departments must fill out “corrective action plans” after major settlements to investigate whether there were policy failures that could lead to a similar incident happening again. But Schwartz said the plans she’s viewed seem weak, too fixated on what went wrong in that specific incident rather than examining larger trends.

“I don’t think that that analysis happens to the degree that it should in Los Angeles County,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said the agency tries to course-correct after lawsuits.

“While litigation is always a concern for the department, we strive to improve our training, policies, practices, and procedures to mitigate future litigation,” the spokesperson said, adding it’s not unusual for the department to see more litigation than others due to its “public safety responsibilities.”


In November 2022 — during a single meeting — the Board of Supervisors approved more than $47 million in settlements in cases involving misconduct by sheriff’s deputies.

One of those came in the case of Andres Guardado, a teenager who was shot five times in the back by a sheriff’s deputy in 2020, after a brief foot chase in Gardena. His killing sparked protests and a lawsuit, in which his parents alleged sheriff’s deputies had killed him in an attempt to become members of a deputy gang.

The lawsuit was settled for $8 million, but the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute either of the deputies involved. Instead, they were both sent to federal prison for an unrelated incident earlier that year, when they abducted a skateboarder and tried to frame him for a drug charge.

At least two of the other settlements approved at that same 2022 board meeting also resulted in hefty payouts but no criminal charges for the deputies involved — a pattern that has been criticized by activists and oversight officials who say it allows problems such as deputy gangs to fester within the department.

“Nobody is being convicted,” said Helen Jones, a community organizer whose son, John Horton, died in solitary confinement in Men’s Central Jail in 2009. “If they will start convicting these deputies and holding them accountable, it’ll mean less lawsuits.”


After seeing pictures of her son’s corpse splattered with blood, she sued the county and said she settled for $2 million. She said there were never criminal charges.