Payout county

Sacramento County loses more money to liability claims and lawsuits than six other similar jurisdictions

This story has been expanded from its print version.

Sacramento County got hammered last year for $21.9 million in liability payments, and there wasn’t much of a silver lining for elected leaders to hide behind.

The county’s contract claims administrator, George Hills Company Inc., delivered the sticker-shock news to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 20. While $5 million was covered by outside insurance, that still means the county paid nearly $17 million in claim payments, legal fees and administrative costs to make some 663 claims go away last fiscal year, which ended June 30. George Hills president Randy Rendig told supervisors the situation won’t improve next year, either.

“2018-19 was a big year in terms of payments,” he said. “Next year it’s going to be up again because of one particular case.”

Rendig didn’t identify the case and, as with past George Hills reports, this one didn’t provide details of individual lawsuits that resulted in large settlements by or adverse decisions against the county. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was once again the object of the highest proportion of lawsuits against the county, with 43% of all accusations against the county targeting the law enforcement agency.

“Law enforcement these days, no surprise, they are constantly getting hammered, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not rightfully so,” Rendig said.

The department was also responsible for the single largest payout—a $7 million settlement inked earlier this year with the family of Chad Irwin, who was fatally shot by a deputy outside his Citrus Heights home in 2016.

Deputies traced a 911 hangup that night to Irwin’s home, where his wife told them the couple had argued earlier in the day about his drinking at a bar before he was supposed to pick up their children. Allison Irwin explained that her husband had mixed pain medication and alcohol, and left the home with a knife after threatening to harm himself.

Chad Irwin returned to the house after speaking by phone with his wife. According to a review by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Irwin told a waiting deputy that the deputy was going to shoot him and brandished the knife. Deputy James Spurgeon fired 11 rounds, seven of which struck Irwin.

An excess insurance carrier covered all but $2 million of the claim. Seven other cases accounted for more than $6 million in payouts.

But perhaps the worst highlight came when Supervisor Susan Peters asked how Sacramento County compared to similarly sized jurisdictions. George Hills risk manager Paul Hight presented a 10-year graph that showed Sacramento County having a comparative-loss ratio more than three times worse than five other counties and one large city. What that means in dollars and cents is that for every $1 the county pays toward an insurance premium, it is losing $1.80.

“Our loss ratio is 180%,” Hight said, adding that a normal ration would be in the 40-60% range.