San Diego County Supervisors and their legal advisers will appeal a $6.4 million court judgment against sheriff’s deputies and jail nurses for injuries suffered by a 32-year-old Encinitas resident while he was in custody.
It’s a risky strategy that could further increase the amount due to David Collins for injuries he suffered in a November 2016 fall at the Vista Detention Center.
The $6.4 million sum is more than double the amount the county could have paid to settle the case before trial.
“They understood, or should have understood, their exposure to the type of verdict they wound up with,” said Collins’ attorney, Robert Vaage. “$3 million was a reasonable way to resolve the case.”
The $3 million settlement was recommended by an independent mediator who reviewed the evidence and heard arguments from attorneys for both sides. Vaage said experts valued the medical costs and economic damages suffered by his client -- who sustained a head injury that prevents him from ever working or living independently -- were worth $4-5 million.
Vaage expected a jury to add millions more for his client’s pain and suffering. And that’s what happened when the case went to trial last July. After just nine hours of deliberation, jurors returned a $12.6 million verdict in Collins’ favor. Last week, the judge reduced the jury’s award to $6.4 million, due to a state law that caps the medical pain and suffering portion of an award at $250,000.
A county spokesman declined to comment Wednesday on the county’s initial decision to reject the $3 million settlement and to now appeal the $6.4 million final judgment. But the spokesman previously told the San Diego Union-Tribune that “Sheriff’s deputies acted reasonably by arresting Collins for being intoxicated in public,” and that “Collins’ own actions at home, as well as those of the doctors at the hospital (where he was taken after his fall at the jail), caused Collins’ injuries, not the actions of sheriff’s deputies or nurses at the jail.”
Vaage presented evidence that his client was not drunk, but instead suffered from a sodium deficiency, the symptoms of which can mimic drunkenness and cause hallucinations. Vaage said paramedics testified at trial that sheriff’s deputies prevented them from assessing Collins’ condition and instead arrested him on suspicion of being drunk in public.
Vaage told NBC 7 that local governments are much less likely to settle cases before trial than are insurance carriers or public and privately-owned companies. Vaage ventured that government attorneys and the elected officials who approve their legal strategies sometimes fail to properly assess the financial risk of taking a case to trial, or think jurors will be less likely to levy big verdicts against public agencies -- and especially law enforcement -- than against private companies.
“Or, I think more likely, it’s just not their money,” Vaage said. “It the taxpayer’s money. It’s not coming out of their pockets. They’re bureaucrats.”
Vaage said the appeals process will take 12 to 18 months. Meanwhile, taxpayers will be responsible for an additional 7% interest on the judgment. Vaage said those interest payments will add an additional $450,000 to $600,000 to the judgment if the appeals court upholds the $6.4 million judgment.
Vaage acknowledged that the county could prevail on appeal, and leave his client with a smaller judgment, or no money at all. But he’s confident the appeals court will reject the county’s arguments.
“Put it this way,” Vaage said. “In my 35 years as a lawyer, I’ve never had a case reversed on appeal.”