SANTA ANA — As Orange County officials scrambled Tuesday to explain a secret multimillion-dollar deal to pay the family of a sheriff's deputy slain by a fellow officer, legal experts criticized the proposed settlement as unusually high and questioned Sheriff Brad Gates' involvement.
Despite earlier assertions by the family's attorney that the case was being settled for $10 million, county officials said Tuesday that survivors of Deputy Darryn Leroy Robins may receive nearly $5 million under a proposed settlement.
Thomas Beckett, the county's risk manager, said about $1.1 million would be paid in a lump sum to Robins' wife, Rosemary, his 3-year-old daughter and his mother. In addition, the county would purchase an annuity for another $800,000 to fund payments that could total nearly $4 million over their lifetimes, Beckett said.
In all, the settlement offer as now structured would cost the county about $2 million, he said.
Beckett declined to discuss how the county arrived at the settlement or the liability in the case.
The offer, Beckett said, is still tentative and needs the approval of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge and a three-member county claims committee, consisting of Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier, acting County Counsel Laurence Watson and Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis.
Thomas Girardi, the family's Los Angeles attorney, said earlier this week that the parties had agreed to a $10-million settlement. He filed papers in Bankruptcy Court listing that amount. Girardi did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment on the settlement amount.
County sources say Gates had pushed hard to compensate the Robins family without a bruising court battle.
The sheriff declined to talk about the settlement Tuesday. His spokesman, Lt. Ron Wilkerson, said Gates was withholding comment on the proposed deal.
"We're attempting to find out where the information came from regarding the settlement and reconcile it with what we believe to be the facts," Wilkerson said. "We will evaluate the situation after that."
The settlement involved the Christmas Day shooting two years ago of Robins by his partner, Brian P. Scanlan, during a training drill outside a Lake Forest movie theater. Scanlan was improperly training with a loaded weapon when he shot Robins in the face.
The shooting sparked allegations of gross misconduct and racism because Scanlan is white and Robins was an African-American. The Orange County Grand Jury and federal prosecutors, however, found no criminal wrongdoing.
On Tuesday, some members of the legal community questioned the amount of county's proposed settlement.
Brian Shenker, a director with the National Verdict Research Service in Horsham, Penn., which tracks jury awards, said the median settlement for a wrongful-death lawsuit against a police department is $700,000.
E. Thomas Barham, a Los Alamitos civil rights lawyer who has filed several lawsuits against police departments, said the county appears to be taking the "highly unusual" step of settling the case without the filing of a lawsuit by Robins' family. The family filed a claim for damages against the county seeking $15 million but never took the case to court.
"It looks like there's something wrong here and somebody needs to apply the smell test," Barham said. "The county is saying this case is worth X number of millions without even taking a deposition."
Stephen Yagman, a Venice lawyer whose practice is largely devoted to cases against police officers, said the proposed settlement appears to be "a special case in which the county government decided to give a gift to a family of one of its own. It sounds like a gift of public funds. The amount is outrageously higher than any settlement that's ever been given by someone that has been harmed by the police."
Wylie A. Aitken, one of Orange County's top personal injury attorneys, said he was surprised by the settlement amount because the publicly known facts of the case don't seem to support a multimillion-dollar claim against the county.
Aitken and other questioned why county officials did not direct the family to pursue a workers' compensation claim. That procedure, which is routinely followed in such cases, would have given the victim's family a maximum of $115,000 in 1993, said Manny Nunez, a Santa Ana attorney who handles workers' compensation cases.
Aitken said the fact that Robins was killed "during the course and scope of his duties" would make the family's claim a worker's compensation issue. "The question is why is the county paying that much," Aitken said.
Scanlan, who says he accidentally fired the shot that killed his 38-year-old partner, on Tuesday said he approved of the proposed deal and was not surprised by reports that Gates supported it.