This press article reveals just how costly the sheriff's department is for the taxpayers in San Bernardino County--and that's not just salary and pensions.
San Bernardino County has paid nearly $63M to settle lawsuits since 2008
By Joe Nelson, The Sun
POSTED: 03/16/14, 7:15 PM PDT |
SAN BERNARDINO >> More than one-fifth of the $62.8 million San Bernardino County paid to settle civil lawsuits over the past six years named the Sheriff’s Department as a defendant, while Arrowhead Regional Medical Center was named defendant in 17 percent of the settled cases.
A review of the county’s 96 settled lawsuits from August 2008 through January 2014 revealed that $13.9 million was paid to plaintiffs in litigation involving the Sheriff’s Department and $7.2 million was paid out in litigation involving county hospital.
County spokesman David Wert said the high percentages can be attributed to the fact that the Sheriff’s Department and county hospital are among the largest public agencies in the county, with the largest exposure to the public each day and the most vulnerable to liability.
Regularly, the two agencies deal with “people who are bleeding, who are in trouble, who or are sick, or who are crime victims or perpetrators,” Wert said.
“That’s always going to account for your highest level of liability,” Wert said.
In neighboring Riverside County, 35 percent of settled civil lawsuits between August 2008 and August 2013 involved that county’s Sheriff’s Department, while 23 percent involved Riverside County Regional Medical Center, county spokesman Ray Smith said. And in the more densely populated San Diego County, nearly half of its settled civil lawsuits from 2009 through 2013 — 46 percent — named the Sheriff’s Department as a defendant, county spokesman Michael Workman said.
San Diego County does not have a county hospital, Workman said.
“It’s worth pointing out that our Sheriff’s Department accounts for a far smaller percentage of the county’s total cases than in Riverside or San Diego,” Wert said. The county does not keep count of the number of civil lawsuits filed annually, and therefore it could not produce an annual average. And only cases carrying a high risk of costing taxpayers more than $50,000 and requiring direction from the Board of Supervisors are brought before the board in closed or open session for discussion, Wert said.
Among the county’s noteworthy settlements include $4.25 million paid in August to Crest Park residents Carol and Alfred Kephart, parents of 43-year-old Allen Kephart, who died following a physical confrontation with four sheriff’s deputies during a traffic stop in Lake Arrowhead on May 10, 2011. Two of the deputies attempted to subdue the nearly 400-pound Kephart with Taser guns, according to a report released by the District Attorney’s Office in January 2012, which deemed the death legally justified.
While the physical stress of the confrontation was a significant contributing factor in Kephart’s death, prosecutors, based on Kephart’s autopsy, determined he had died of a heart attack due to obesity, a diseased heart and hypertension, according to the district attorney’s report.
The incident spurred a Grand Jury investigation into the Sheriff’s Department’s stun gun-use policy, and the Grand Jury recommended enhanced officer training and greater communication among on-scene officers as to the number of stun gun discharges deployed on an individual.
Kephart’s parents sued the county alleging the wrongful death of their son due to excessive force.
Criminal matters and civil matters are very different from each other in that the burdens of proof are vastly different, and the outcomes sometimes reflect that, Wert said. He cited as an example the civil lawsuit brought against O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted in the criminal case alleging he murdered his wife and her friend in 1994 but was convicted in the civil case.
“The DA’s decision might have reduced the county’s civil exposure, but obviously the civil risk was still great enough to make the settlement the best course for the taxpayers,” Wert said of the Kephart case. “When deciding whether to settle and for what amount, defendants weigh what a civil jury might end up doing plus the legal costs of litigating a matter to the end, including appeals.
“Clearly in this case, the county believed there was a reasonable chance the case would end up costing the taxpayers more than $4.2 million had it proceeded,” Wert said.
Also in August, the county agreed to pay fired sheriff’s Deputy Travis Bauer a total of $885,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit he brought against the department. Bauer alleged he was fired for taking too much time off from work to care for his sick mother, and that his department violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act.
Wert said the settlement was not an admission of liability on the county’s part but a means to avert costly ongoing litigation.
According to court records, the county maintained it was Bauer’s continual poor work performance, not his absences, that was the reason for his termination.
In August 2009, the county settled a lawsuit brought by Air Force Sgt. Elio Carrion for $1.5 million. Carrion was shot three times by Deputy Ivory Webb in Chino following a high speed chase. Carrion was a passenger in the vehicle and was lying on the ground when a bystandar shot video of Webb shooting Carrion. The incident garnered national media attention.
Webb was charged with two felonies in the case, becoming the first deputy in at least 30 years to be charged criminally in San Bernardino County in connection with an on-duty shooting. A jury ultimately acquitted him.
In July, the county settled for $1.7 million a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the county hospital, the largest settlement involving the hospital in the past six years.
Plaintiff Christopher Day alleged in the lawsuit, filed in August 2007, that doctor’s failed to detect a large blood clot and fluid around his wife’s heart during treatment for uncontrolled blood pressure in 2006. The doctors who treated Barbara Carlin-Day, who was pregnant with a son at the time of her death, did not conduct any scans or advanced testing, and told her “all was well,” according to the lawsuit.
While having dinner with her husband the next day, Carlin-Day had a seizure and was rushed to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where she underwent an emergency Caesarean section and subsequently died. The surgeon indicated in his report that there was “a very large blood clot that was about all my hands could carry,” according to the lawsuit.
Law enforcement and hospitals are by far the highest-risk organizations in terms of litigation for any government agency, Wert said.
“In this respect, San Bernardino County is no different than any other county or city. Law enforcement and hospitals are the largest organizations in terms of workforce and contact with the public, and virtually all of their contacts involve some form of crisis. It is no surprise that they account for a large share of litigation.”
He said litigation and settlements are not clear indicators of the kind of work being done by law enforcement or hospitals, and that anyone can sue for anything, and oftentimes they do.
“Settlements are not an admission of wrongdoing but rather an effort to avoid the high costs of litigation and the risk inherent in jury trials,” Wert said. “For the county and probably for all government agencies, every case is an opportunity to take a look at how things are done and see if things should be done differently.”