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L.A. County's litigation costs jump 10%, to $145 million

L.A. County's litigation costs jump 10%, to $145 million
The L.A. County sheriff's headquarters in the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. The Sheriff’s Department saw a 40% decline in new excessive-force lawsuits and a 33% drop in cases involving deputy-related shootings in the 2016-17 fiscal year. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County paid more than $145 million settling and fighting lawsuits in 2016-17, a 10% jump from the previous fiscal year, according to a report made public Tuesday.

The report from the county counsel was presented to the Board of Supervisors. They did not discuss the report or hear a presentation about it at their weekly meeting, as they have in previous years. Asked about the findings, supervisors either declined to comment or did not respond.

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The largest payout noted in the report was $10.1 million in a wrongful incarceration case involving a man whose murder conviction was overturned after he had spent 20 years in prison.

The second most expensive settlement came in a lawsuit that alleged violations of federal clean water laws. The Flood Control District paid $4.5 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which had accused the county of allowing excessive pollutants on beaches and watersheds.

There was also a $3.5-million settlement involving a patient at a county hospital who suffered a brain injury while being treated for an infection. Another $3-million payout went to settle a lawsuit over dangerous roadway conditions that led to a car crash where a woman was paralyzed.

Despite the county’s spending more on litigation, the report said the total number of lawsuits filed against the county declined for the second year in a row.

There were 707 suits filed, compared with 749 in the previous fiscal year. It was the lowest number of new cases in the last seven years, according to the report.

The Sheriff’s Department saw a 40% decline in new excessive-force lawsuits and a 33% drop in cases involving deputy-related shootings, the report said. In all, the department was sued 189 times.

Steve Robles, assistant chief executive officer with the county’s Risk Management Branch, said the decline in lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department was the result of policy and management changes.

“The Sheriff’s Department has been doing a good job of paying attention to previous lawsuits and putting in action to avoid future litigation,” said Robles, who helped prepare the report.

In all, the county paid out $68.6 million in judgments and settlements involving the Sheriff’s Department, the most of any county department.

The $145.5 million amount includes $79.3 million for 12 judgments and 242 settlements of lawsuits, which was an 11% increase compared to the $71.3 million the county spent the prior fiscal year.

It also includes $66.1 million in attorney fee costs, the report said. This was a 9% increase from fiscal year 2015-16.

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