Cops breaking doors, and other claims against the Davis County Sheriff's Office

Friday , January 19, 2018 - 5:15 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Lawsuits and other civil liability claims have sought millions of dollars in damages from the Davis County Sheriff’s Office over the past eight years, yet records show claimants have succeeded in collecting only $2,262 in compensation.

The county paid a $744,000 annual premium in 2017 for coverage by the Utah Counties Indemnity Pool, a state-created entity that protects counties and their officials and employees against liability claims and lawsuits.

RELATED: Davis jail death plaintiff blasts secrecy and 'callousness'

The premium covers everyday claims over property and vehicle matters and provides catastrophic coverage, or “sleep insurance,” for claims of $250,000 or more, said Johnnie Miller, CEO of the pool.

“Law enforcement exposure is one of the areas where we pay out regularly, and a lot of that is just for the defense,” Miller said. “Even if they didn’t do anything wrong, it costs us a lot to defend them.”

The Standard-Examiner obtained county and court records of liability claims of $500 or more involving the sheriff’s office, which is facing two potential multimillion-dollar actions over a pair of deaths in the county jail in 2016.

Of more than a dozen cases since 2011 — the year Sheriff Todd Richardson took office — most have been dismissed by federal judges. The lone payouts went to a church and a local couple whose doors were damaged by sheriff’s deputies while searching for a suspect.

County attorneys are obligated by state law to defend their government against legal claims. The risk pool steps in with specialist lawyers to help handle some of the biggest cases, such as wrongful-death suits. The bulk of those disputes are fought out in state or federal courts.

“We will pay the cost of having outside counsel who have experience in defending against those types of cases,” Miller said.

He said the expenses of defense dwarf the amounts paid in judgments. 

The existence of catastrophic insurance in the event of big claims gives counties much more control over a major litigation “in deciding whether to fight or settle it,” Miller said.

Davis County’s insurance premium has gone up 37.4 percent, from $541,804 in 2011 to $744,768 last year.

Miller said the risk pool contracts with an actuary to study trends and a county’s predicted claim experience. The prediction method recently was switched to a closer assessment of numbers of employees and payroll, which Miller said has proven to be a more accurate indicator of claim expectations.

Davis County has a higher share of law enforcement-related personnel than some other counties, which can be a driver of the premium rising faster in the past few years, according to Miller.

The risk pool was created in 1992 after many counties around the nation lost traditional insurance coverage, partly because of high jail claims, Miller said.

“The group pooling arrangement is a strategy that has worked very, very well for government agencies and has worked very well in Utah,” he said.

WRONGFUL-DEATH CLAIMS

Davis County received at least three wrongful-death claims against the sheriff’s office, beginning with a claim filed by Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, representing the estate of Thomas G. Hamby Jr. of Syracuse.

The claim said Hamby was deaf and not wearing his hearing aids on Jan. 8, 2015, when “the officers opened fire for no justifiable reason and shot Mr. Hamby 16 times.” But the officers involved — two Davis sheriff’s deputies and a Syracuse police officer — said Hamby fired a shotgun at them as they approached his home. The Utah Attorney General’s Office ruled the shooting was justified.

In a letter responding to a records request about claims against the sheriff’s office, county Records Manager Rebecca Abbott said Geragos did not follow up on the claim and it is now “time-barred” from being followed up by a lawsuit.

An attorney for the children and siblings of Kara Noakes filed a $2 million claim in June 2017 against the county. Noakes, 46, died in the jail June 23, 2016. The family blames the county, saying Noakes was deprived of life-sustaining heart medication after she was jailed.

The county has acknowledged receiving the claim. The attorney, Steven Johnson, said his next step will be to file a lawsuit.

On Jan. 3 this year, Cynthia Farnham-Stella filed suit in U.S. District Court accusing the Davis jail of violating her daughter’s civil rights by failing to provide adequate medical care. Heather Miller, 28, died of internal bleeding Dec. 21, 2016, after falling from her cell’s top bunk, rupturing her spleen.

The county has not yet filed an answer to the suit.

JAIL COMPLAINTS

At least five jail inmates filed claims against the county over medical care or related conditions, and all but one have been dismissed.

Portia Louder, awaiting trial for an $11 million real estate scam, spent time in the Davis and Weber County jails in 2014. She filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming she was kept naked and humiliated while withdrawing from narcotics. A federal judge dismissed the suit in July 2017.

William C. Pumphrey sued the Davis jail medical contractor, Dr. John Wood, over allegations he was deprived of adequate care for chronic pain. The suit was dismissed.

In a similar case, also thrown out by a federal judge, inmate Charles Cooper alleged the jail kept vital pain medications from him and would not let him bring his cane into the jail.

Jamis Johnson, an inmate who said he was legally blind, filed an unsuccessful claim for damages against the Davis and Cache County jails. He accused the jails of not allowing him to use visual aids, which he said deprived him of being able to help prepare a defense in a criminal case against him.

One other suit remains pending in federal court, filed by Jordan Alan Brewer, who’s now serving five years in federal prison on a child pornography charge. Brewer’s $125,000 U.S. District Court suit accuses the Davis jail of supplying only certain inexpensive medications that did not control his depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

DOORS DAMAGED

Actions by jailers and county patrol deputies also drew a half-dozen notices of claim or lawsuits.

Aurora Laurel Laurie Yanez filed a federal suit claiming Davis jailers put her in a holding cell with 10 to 15 male inmates. Her suit was dismissed, as were suits in which men claimed they were arrested by mistaken identity, illegally restrained and forced to submit to a blood draw, and deprived of cash confiscated by jailers during the booking process.

An Ogden attorney filed a $200,000 personal injury claim against Davis County after a 2013 car crash involving a Davis deputy. Abbott said the attorney did not further pursue the claim.

In two cases, the county paid damages over broken doors.

St. Olaf Catholic Church in Bountiful filed a claim over damage to a door during a Feb. 19, 2016, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) training and briefing in the church gym.

“Several phone calls have been made regarding the payment of the invoice and as of this date we have not seen any result,” the church said in its Sept. 26 claim letter.

The county later paid the church $966 for the damages, according to Abbott.

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The records officer said the county also paid $1,276 to a Davis County couple whose home was damaged during a search for a drug suspect on May 9, 2013.

In her claim letter one year later, Joan Hoskins said nine police officers and a dog arrived, looking for a suspect. She asked them for a search warrant and she said they told her they didn’t need one.

During the search, an officer “tried to push the patio door from our deck open with such force that the glass was separated from the steel door, the frame was damaged and the door warped.”

Her letter said another officer “kicked in three doors, damaging the casing, completely destroying the doors and the door jams and locks.”

She said she had offered to open the doors “and actually provided the keys so this act of wanton destruction could be avoided.”

One of the officers told her his colleagues “could have handled the situation better” and promised they would seek reimbursement for the damages.

“Unfortunately that has not occurred and simply has been one more bit of salt in an already festering wound,” she wrote.

Hoskins said the couple’s attorney encouraged them to sue the sheriff’s office for deprivation of their civil rights, but they decided to ask for reimbursement of the door repair costs.

TOWING TROUBLE

Attorneys representing the county also fended off a federal lawsuit accusing the sheriff’s office of rigging the local towing rotation against operators who were not dues-paying members of a tow truck association.

Bill Adams, owner of Snap Towing in Kaysville, filed suit Aug. 29, 2013, alleging the count violated the federal Sherman Antitrust Act and expired in the restraint of trade and the protection of a monopoly.

The Davis County Towing Association and the Sheriff’s Office imposed expensive and discriminatory requirements and county dispatchers would not summon Snap Towing even when motorists requested it, the suit said.

But a federal judge tossed out the suit after the county argued Snap’s allegations were “pure speculation.”

“Bare bones accusations of a conspiracy without any supporting facts are insufficient to state an antitrust claim,” the county argued, adding the county was immune from liability anyway.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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