Records show Stanislaus County government has paid $12.4 million in legal settlements this year

kcarlson@modbee.comMay 3, 2014 

Legal settlements were a big expense for Stanislaus County government in the first three months of this year.

The county paid $12.4 million to settle lawsuits and other liability claims. Records obtained by The Modesto Bee show the county made 21 payments between Jan. 1 and March 31, which ranged from $110 to replace a cracked windshield to $8.25 million for a major pretrial settlement.

County Counsel John Doering said three major cases wrapped up at close to the same time, including a lawsuit over a deadly 2010 crash near Patterson, a contract dispute with a former medical examiner and negotiations with cities over property tax administration overcharges.

The largest payment was $8.25 million to James Anderson to settle a lawsuit stemming from the Aug. 24, 2010, collision that killed four people at Elm and Las Palmas avenues, a mile east of Patterson. Three members of Anderson’s family were killed when their sport utility vehicle was struck by a van that ran the stop sign on Elm, and James Anderson, then 24, was paralyzed from the chest down.

The county agreed to settle Anderson’s lawsuit, which alleged dangerous road conditions, rather than risk a court judgment five times that amount if the case went to trial. Doering said it’s the largest settlement paid by the county since he was named county counsel in 2008.

The county paid $2.54 million to its nine cities to resolve claims over property tax administration charges for previous years.

It paid a $1.6 million judgment to Forensic Consultants Medical Group. Last year, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William Mayhew awarded $1.37 million plus interest to Dr. Robert Lawrence, owner of Forensic Consultants, after ruling that the Sheriff’s Department illegally broke its contract with Lawrence in 2007 and then hired his employee, Sung-Ook Baik, as the county’s forensic pathologist.

Smaller amounts were paid to settle claims for property damage, auto accidents involving county employees and a retired deputy sheriff’s lawsuit.

In the Anderson case, the 2011 lawsuit named the county and the driver of the van, James Edward Rowell, as defendants. Based on the results of an autopsy, the California Highway Patrol determined that Rowell was intoxicated when he ran the stop sign and plowed into the Andersons’ vehicle.

James Anderson and his wife, Ashley, were paid an undisclosed amount from Rowell’s auto insurance that was deemed inadequate by the plaintiff’s attorneys. The lawsuit continued to seek a judgment for medical costs and other damages, claiming that the county had failed to correct dangerous problems with visibility at the intersection.

Doering said it was clear to county officials that the drunken driver was at fault for the tragedy, but there were risks that Anderson’s legal team could convince a jury that the county was substantially liable.

According to Anderson’s attorneys, Patterson residents had urged the county to put a four-way stop at the intersection because motorists had trouble seeing approaching vehicles. They claimed the limited sight distance at the intersection made the county liable.

Doering said legal advisers thought the county had a strong defense, but if they failed to convince a jury, the county could be ordered to pay wrongful-death judgments of $40 million to $50 million, well above the county’s insurance limits. With the nature of Anderson’s disabling injuries, existing laws could make the county responsible for paying sizable damages even if it was only partly liable, Doering said.

The parties negotiated terms of an agreement in December and the case was dismissed in March. Insurance companies covered the payment, except for $250,000 from the county.

“We are the deep pockets and this is where the plaintiff’s attorneys went for compensation for their client,” Doering said. “We feel bad for (Anderson). His life was torn asunder. But, in our mind, it is tough pill to swallow when we are picking up the pieces for a drunk driver.”

Douglas Saeltzer, one of the San Francisco attorneys who represented Anderson, said his client’s care needs alone will amount to more than the $8.25 million settlement. The large payment is valid compensation for such a devastating incident, he said.

“He lost his mother, his father, his brother, and he is in a wheelchair unable to move his arms and legs,” Saeltzer said. “When he woke up in the hospital, his wife had to tell him his family was gone.”

Anderson was home from attending law school in Wisconsin and heading out of town to dinner with family members to celebrate his birthday when the crash occurred. James Donald Anderson, 49, Emma Anderson, 44, and Andrew Anderson, 15, all of Patterson, were pronounced dead at the scene. The law student was airlifted to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

James Donald Anderson was an assistant varsity coach in a youth football league and Andrew was an honor student at Patterson High School. The plaintiff, James “Jimmy” Anderson, has since graduated from the law school in Wisconsin.

Saeltzer said the theory for the case came from a 2005 petition signed by 132 residents asking for a four-way stop at Las Palmas and Elm, where palm trees and orchards obstructed the view of vehicles approaching the intersection. One of the sight distances was 190 feet, one-third of the state standard, the attorney said.

It’s not uncommon for attorneys who represent people injured in auto accidents to seek damages from the county, which owns 1,500 miles of road and has deep pockets. A court may order the county to pay for medical costs and vehicle damage if it’s shown that a dangerous road condition was at fault.

Saeltzer said the county had plans in 2006 for a four-way stop with flashing beacon at Elm and Las Palmas, which would have alleviated the safety issue, but the improvements weren’t installed, he said.

Doering countered that the petition was not entirely about safety. Some of those who complained said it was hard to move farm equipment and trucks through the intersection without stop signs on Las Palmas. A traffic study concluded a four-way stop was not warranted, and such a remedy could have slowed traffic to a crawl on Las Palmas, creating other liabilities, Doering said.

He added that more traffic controls would not have prevented Rowell from running the stop sign.

After the 2010 crash, a signal was installed.

Hefty property tax settlements

The payment to Forensic Consultants is a sore spot for Sheriff Adam Christianson, who is seeking re-election in June. The court found that the sheriff was deceitful when he secretly arranged to hire Baik before Lawrence was fired almost seven years ago.

According to a Bee report in September, lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department during Christianson’s tenure have cost taxpayers $9.4 million. About $5 million of that was legal costs from defending lawsuits filed by employees.

Records show $8,000 was paid earlier this year to retired deputy Mark Drewry, who filed suit in January 2013 claiming he was forced out after suffering a work-related injury. Doering said it made sense to settle for that amount to avoid litigation costs.

In other settlements, the county paid $15,000 to Tyler Ackman of Patterson for medical costs and property damage. Ackman’s vehicle was struck from behind in December by an employee driving a county vehicle on Crows Landing Road. In another case, Mario Amador received $2,192 after his vehicle was rear-ended by a county employee.

City and county officials patted themselves on the back for reaching an agreement outside of courtrooms over property tax administration fees after the state Supreme Court ruled in November 2012 that counties had overcharged cities for those costs since 2006. In a December agreement, cities variously agreed to accept reimbursements from the county for 31/2 or 41/2 of those years.

Modesto received the largest payment – $1.37 million. The smallest amounts were paid to Newman ($49,739), Waterford ($47,839) and Hughson ($37,871).

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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