The cost of judgments and settlements against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department totaled more than $60 million in fiscal year 2019-20, nearly three times the litigation costs incurred by any other county department, according to a report received by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
The total countywide cost of litigation, including attorney’s fees and expenses, was $151.9 million, up slightly from the prior year based on higher total legal fees.
None of the three most expensive LASD judgments — which made up 90% of the total $15.4 million paid out under court orders — were related to excessive force incidents. However, $1 million was distributed as the final payment in a case involving a 2010 warrantless entry in which deputies shot a resident and his pregnant wife in Lancaster.
County lawyers spent $72.2 million last year to settle claims and suits out of court against all departments, an increase of 20% over the prior year. The biggest payouts included $12.5 million to settle an auto liability suit involving a deputy who ran a red light and killed two children in 2017 and $7.1 million paid in a class-action employment discrimination suit against the Department of Children and Family Services. Another $4.4 million — of a total $7 million settlement — was paid to the family of Donta Taylor, who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies in 2016.
Two deputies who filed a claim against the county alleging that they were selectively prosecuted — and who were acquitted — of filing false police reports were paid $2.25 million to settle their suit.
As legal actions often take years to settle and payments are frequently spread over multiple years, the annual litigation cost is not particularly helpful as a point-in-time assessment of the county’s overall liability or the effect of particular policy reforms. A separate risk management report, also received and filed by the board on Tuesday, provides additional detail on exposure to liability and workers’ compensation claims.
However, one telling statistic is that new lawsuits were up 11% in 2019-20 and have been on the rise every year since 2015-16. And the LASD was sued more often than any other department during 2019-20, with a total of 194 suits in process. By comparison, the Department of Public Works was served with 60 new suits, DHS with 40 and DCFS with 35.
The top three case types were dangerous condition, auto liability and law enforcement claims. The county’s success rate at trial fell below a four-year average of 49% to 38%, though the county won 12 of its 13 appeals last year.
Another bright spot is that the county was able to recover $62.3 million by settling a claim against Southern California Edison related to the 2018 Woolsey Fire, based on the utility’s acknowledgment that its equipment was likely associated with ignition of the blaze.
Contract cities also picked up a portion of the county’s total litigation cost.
The board offered no comment on the report at its Tuesday meeting, voting simply to receive and file it.