Orange County has spent more than $12 million over the last six years to settle lawsuits using an unusual system that bypasses any review or scrutiny from the elected Board of Supervisors.
Unlike all other urban counties in California, Orange County makes these payments without public notice or approval from the supervisors. Rather, the out of court settlements are ratified by a special committee made up of county officials.
That might change next week, when the supervisors are scheduled to discuss changing procedures to require board approval for any large claims settlements.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer is proposing the change, arguing that the board needs to review the terms of large payouts and better determine whether broader changes in county policy are needed.
"Nowhere else can attorneys settle a lawsuit without their clients' approval," Spitzer said. "We, as the representatives of the taxpayers, are the clients."
Documents show that the settlements run the gamut: $590,000 in the case of a road department driver who struck and killed a pedestrian; $900,000 in the case of a deputy who was accidentally shot to death during a training exercise; $95,000 in a case involving a jail inmate who was allegedly beaten by guards.
Some of the payments dealt with sensitive issues such as sexual harassment and police misconduct, yet none were voted on by supervisors.
All other Southern California counties require board approval for large settlements.
"I have heard of judges telling plaintiffs 'Do you really want the [county counsel] to have to go to the board with this?' as an encouragement to settle for less," said Nathan Northup, San Diego's senior deputy county counsel."But it is also unlikely that someone with a large claim will settle for less than $25,000 to avoid a board review."
San Diego's board must approve any settlements larger than $25,000.
In the last fiscal year, Orange County paid more than $1 million in settlements, including the excessive force claim, two civil rights violation claims filed by county employees (total: $240,000) and three sexual harassment lawsuits against former Assistant Sheriff Dennis LaDucer.
The LaDucer case is shaping up as one of the largest payouts in Orange County history.
Three of five sexual harassment lawsuits filed by female employees of the Sheriff's Department against the former high-ranking official have been settled for a total of $737,577.
With lawyers fees, the tab is close to $1 million.
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How select counties in California approve liability claims.
WHO APPROVES, BY DOLLAR AMOUNT
County An Administrator Claims Committee Board of Supervisors Orange under $50,000 $50,000 or more NA Los Angeles under $20,000 between $20,000 $100,000 or more and $99,999 San Diego* under $25,000 NA $25,000 or more Ventura under $50,000 NA $50,000 or more San Bernardino under $50,000 NA $50,000 or more Riverside under $50,000 NA $50,000 or more Santa Clara under $25,000 between $25,000 $50,000 or more and $49,999 Sacramento** under $50,000 NA $50,000 or more San Francisco under $50,000 NA $50,000 or more
*A panel of attorneys from the county counsel's office reviews claims between $10,000 and $25,000 and lawsuits between $5,000 and $25,000.
**The county executive office has authority to settle multiple-party claims of up to $100,000, but up to $50,000 per claimant.
Graphics Reporting by DANIEL YI / Los Angeles Times
Source: County counsels and risk managers of the counties listed.