Jefferson County refuses to settle 'frivolous' claims, keeps civil court costs low

By David Yates | Dec 9, 2009

While known as a "judicial hellhole" in some tort reform circles, Jefferson County critics might be surprised to learn the county only spent $1.2 million settling civil suits over the last 10 years.

One of the reasons behind the meager total can perhaps be attributed to the county's top civil attorney, who says he declines to hire outside attorneys and refuses to settle frivolous lawsuits.

"I don't pay frivolous claims," said Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg during a recent interview. "If you file a frivolous suit against (Jefferson) County, you better get ready to go to trial."

Rugg's tough words are backed up the fact that the county only spent $11,453 settling civil suits in 2001, according to county financial records.

The most expensive year for paying out on civil suits came in 2005, when the county doled out $288,438.71 in taxpayer funds.

However, that number dropped for four consecutive years, bottoming out at $49,068.74 in 2008, before spiking to $129,574.54 in 2009.

Rugg says the majority of the settled civil suits are minor property damage claims. For example, the county may be force to spend anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars when a county employee causes an automobile collision.

"We don't spend a lot of money out of direct pocket costs," Rugg said, adding that he, and three attorneys under him, exclusively handle the "40 to 50 claims pending against the county at any given time."

Rugg went on to say he can't afford to be wasteful, since the county does not carry lawsuit insurance.

Not only does Rugg make sure the county is ready to take a frivolous case to trial, he is also ready to appeal if the county is hit with large damages in a jury verdict.

For example, as the Record previously reported in September 2008, a former Jefferson County constable won his case against his former employer and was awarded more than $126,000 in damages for his alleged wrongful termination.

Larry Roccaforte, a former chief constable for Precinct 7, filed a civil suit against the county and his fellow officers in June 2006, alleging his constitutional rights were violated when he was fired for not reporting to duty following Hurricane Rita in 2005 and for forging a court document while on probation.

Rugg appealed the jury award, arguing the county had governmental immunity.

In March, justices seated on the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed the award.

"The jury didn't see things my way but thankfully the appeals court did," Rugg said.

Jefferson County liability claims fund summary totals over the last 10 years:

2000: $39,395
2001: $11,453.54
2002: $105,865.08
2003: $147,332.12
2004: $111,110.96
2005: $288,438.71
2006: $229,305.47
2007: $86,856.05
2008: $49,068.74
2009: $129,474.54

Total: $1,198,400

Source: Jefferson County Auditor Patrick Swain

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