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Los Angeles Sheriff Department Report: Prisoner Lawsuits Slowed, But Payouts Grew

Los Angeles Sheriff Department Report: Prisoner Lawsuits Slowed, But Payouts Grew

by John E. Dannenberg

In its July 2008 25th semi-annual report, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) reviewed prisoner litigation against the county in the six-year period from 2001-2007. While the report noted a “welcome reduction” of new cases, suggesting that newer jail management practices had been fruitful, it observed that the total dollar amount of settlements had nonetheless increased.

The report compared two three-year intervals: 2001-2003 and 2004-2007. In the earlier period, the number of jail-related civil lawsuits filed averaged 300 per year, while the corresponding total payout was $9.9 million. In the later interval, the average number of new suits dropped to 233, but payouts rose to $10.8 million. Doing the math, the corresponding dollar cost increase per case filed grew from $33,021 in 2001-2003 to $44,804 in 2004-2007. While the report noted wide swings in individual years, this was attributable to the timing of settlements, not to the incidence of malfeasance. Nonetheless, the drop from 300 to 233 new suits filed per year was taken by LASD as affirmation that newer policies to reduce liability were working.

Examining the cases LASD paid out on, the report first noted that in 2001-2002, 50% of the cases were lost by LASD (either at trial or by settlement), while in 2006-2007, only 37% were lost. However, the subset of LASD prisoner suits linked solely to excessive-force complaints trended downward over the six years.

First, the number of such new cases per year declined from 67.67 per year in 2001-2003 to 62 in 2004-2007. The number of those cases per year that prisoners won dropped from 30.33 to 22.67 over the two intervals. This was attributed to LASD taking more cases to trial and winning in court. Of the 67 new cases in 2001-2002, LASD won only five at trial, whereas in 2006-2007, successes grew to seven. And payouts for the subset of excessive-force suits dropped from $4.2 million per year in 2001-2003 to $2.6 million per year for 2004-2007.

Specifically reviewing fiscal year 2006-2007, the report noted that LASD paid out at least something in 69 of the 233 cases, or 30%. 62 of those cases were settled, while seven went to judgment for the prisoner. Of the 69, 17 paid out over $100,000. The average payout was $161,000, skewed upwards by one high award of $2.8 million. Of the 17, six involved in-custody injury or death. Other cases included auto liability, out-of-custody excessive force, sexual assault and harassment. The six highest settlements totaled $5.635 million, or 51% of all LASD jail civil liability claims paid in 2006-2007; sexual assault cases totaled another $2.8 million (25%).

Of most interest to PLN readers are the in-custody death and injury settlements. A 1998 case of a Long Beach man dying of a micro-fracture of the neck and ruptured aneurism settled for $110,000 after the question of whether he died from a choke hold by police went unanswered. In 2002, a 71-year-old man with a long history of heart disease died in his cell after complaining of shortness of breath and presenting symptoms of a crackling sound in his lungs. Jail personnel did not transfer him to the hospital. Failure to timely respond resulted in a $475,000 settlement.

In another hypertension case, in 2003, LASD nurses examined a 62-year-old prisoner and found him in a state of total confusion. He received no medical follow-up and died of a heart attack during a visit with his wife two weeks later. The settlement here was $700,000. A prisoner doing 180 days was beaten by four other prisoners over a property dispute. Lack of adequate police coverage was blamed for the man’s eventual permanent severe brain injuries. He settled for $750,000.

In the case of a 41-year-old child molester who was brutally assaulted in a dorm in the Men’s Central Jail in 2003, also resulting in life-long permanent brain injuries, the settlement was $2.8 million - by far the Jail’s largest for an in-custody injury. And in a case reported earlier in PLN where a Men’s Central Jail prisoner was beset upon brutally by 29 high-risk prisoners in an unattended room, the settlement was for $800,000.

It would appear that failure to properly isolate known susceptible prisoners from acknowledged violent assaulters in the Los Angeles County Jails is still the leading source of the Jail’s liability. Not reported was the added cost to the county of its own litigation expense in all the hundreds of annual cases. See: 25th Semiannual Report of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, July 2008. The report is posted on PLN’s website.

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