It may not be his money, but Tom Rugg is frugal with it.

Rugg is the assistant district attorney for Jefferson County, which has paid out only $1,198,400 in liability claims over the past 10 years – with a high of $288,438.71 in 2005, and a low of $11,453.54 in 2001. That's an average of just over $100,000 per year. Not bad for an area that some consider a "judicial hellhole."

By way of comparison, eight of California's largest cities and nine of its largest counties spent over $500 million to deal with lawsuits in fiscal years 2006-2008, according to a recent report by California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Consider also Cook County, Ill., which spent $69 million in 2008 alone, while the city of Chicago paid out $136 million.

That helps put Jefferson County's meager outlay in perspective.

How has Rugg kept the costs down?

"I don't pay frivolous claims," he explains. "If you file a frivolous suit against the county, you better get ready to go to trial."

According to Rugg, the majority of settlements in civil suits against Jefferson County are for minor claims such as damage caused by county employees in automobile accidents.

"We don't spend a lot of money in direct out-of-pocket costs," he asserts. Nor are outside attorneys used. The office legal staff handles the "40 to 50 claims pending against the county at any given time," he said.

The county does not carry lawsuit insurance, so Rugg has to be thrifty. He appeals when a jury awards large damages against the county. Rugg had one such verdict overturned last year, after a jury awarded a county constable $126,000 for wrongful termination. "The jury didn't see things my way," he admits, "but thankfully the appeals court did."

Imagine the savings if city and county attorneys across America were as conscientious as Tom Rugg. Local governments would be in better shape financially and the tax burden on its citizens would lower.

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