Sheriff's Department misconduct-claim payouts have soared, topping $50 million last year

In one case, Los Angeles County paid more than $6 million to a woman who had been raped by a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop.

In another, it took more than $7 million to resolve multiple lawsuits after deputies in West Hollywood mistakenly shot two hostages, killing one and seriously wounding the other.

Those payouts from 2016 helped drive a dramatic increase in the cost of resolving legal claims against the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department during the last five years, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The county’s annual payouts have jumped from $5.6 million to nearly $51 million over that time.

The judgments and settlements often involved allegations of serious misconduct against law enforcement officers, including sexual assault, excessive force, shooting unarmed suspects and wrongful imprisonment.

Many of the payouts stemmed from incidents that stretched back several years and were settled after working their way though the legal system — so they don’t necessarily reflect current deputy conduct.

But attorneys, government officials and law enforcement experts say the increase nevertheless reflects growing distrust of law enforcement and the intense public scrutiny of how officers use deadly force.

Jurors are now less likely to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt and more likely to award larger sums to plaintiffs, driving up the cost of judgments and emboldening attorneys to seek larger settlements during negotiations, experts said.

“The social climate of today has had an important impact on trials and outcomes,” said Steven H. Estabrook, litigation cost manager for the Los Angeles County counsel’s office. “Higher awards and higher costs are getting more common.”

The 42 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department have had to pay millions of dollars more to help cover settlements. The result is that cities are finding it harder to obtain insurance to cover law enforcement litigation, and some local officials say the county should pick up more of the costs.

His firm handled a lawsuit that resulted in the largest payout against the Sheriff’s Department last fiscal year — to the family of Alfredo Montalvo, an unarmed 29-year-old who was killed when deputies fired 61 shots after a brief 2009 pursuit in Lynwood.

Deputies said they opened fire as Montalvo reversed toward them after crashing his car. But the plaintiffs argued that his car was wedged between two other vehicles and that he reversed so that he could comply with deputies’ orders to open his door.

In that case, county lawyers thought they had a strong case. The Sheriff’s Department had determined that the shooting was within policy. But jurors awarded nearly $8.8 million to Montalvo’s family. The county later reached a settlement for $8.85 million — which included attorney fees — to avoid spending more money on an appeal.

The financial burden is shared by cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for patrol services. In the last fiscal year, those cities contributed $12.7 million toward the $50.9 million paid out in total. Their insurance carriers forked over an additional $19.4 million.

Marcel Rodarte, executive director of the California Contract Cities Assn., said he has seen signs that the sheriff is cracking down on deputy misconduct and hopes McDonnell’s actions will help reduce legal payouts.

Still, he said, he is concerned that the surcharge that cities pay on their contracts with the Sheriff’s Department to cover litigation costs has climbed steadily from 4% to 10%.

At the same time, he said, cities have had to raise the deductible they pay in individual lawsuits from $1 million to $3 million in order to keep insurance costs down.

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said that the costs “are out of this world” and that the county should pay more because the Sheriff’s Department is a county agency.

“The county does the training, supervises these individuals and hires them,” he said, “so they should be responsible.”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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