Sheriff fights most lawsuits, and usually wins

All too often, for-profit businesses choose to settle civil claims against them, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing and the pending lawsuits have no real merit.

These businesses opt to settle such cases because they or their insurance providers determine that it’s more economical – and less risky – to pay off plaintiffs than it would be to fight them in court and gamble with a jury.

Our Sheriff’s Office isn’t a for-profit business. It’s a self-insured, governmental entity that faces exposure to potential lawsuits on a daily basis. And, as such, it sees a long-term danger in settling bogus claims merely to avoid the cost and risk of contesting them.

“Objectively speaking, I understand why businesses make those decisions,” said Indian River County Undersheriff Jim Harpring, the Sheriff’s Office’s second-in-command and in-house attorney. “But that’s not our philosophy.

“If we determine that our employees did nothing wrong and there’s no cause for the claim,  then we’ll vigorously defend the case,” he added. “We won’t engage in any cost-benefit analysis. We don’t want to be an agency that throws money at potential plaintiffs just to make them go away.

“The way we see it: That sends the wrong message.”

And that message he doesn’t want to send is?

“That we’ll settle, whether it’s a good claim or not, just because it’s less costly and less risky,” Harpring said. “We believe settling baseless or fraudulent claims opens you up to more lawsuits, particularly from people looking for a quick payoff.”

Refusing to settle bogus claims also sends a strong message to deputies who patrol our community and oversee jail inmates. It tells them: Sheriff Deryl Loar has your back.

Law enforcement is a potentially dangerous profession that requires poise under pressure as well as proficiency. Deputies sometimes find themselves in situations where they make split-second, life-and-death decisions. “And we don’t want them looking over their shoulders,” Harpring said. “We want the men and women in the field to act with confidence, without having to worry about being second-guessed later on. We want them to know that, if they’ve done nothing wrong, we will defend them.

“We, as a law enforcement agency, engage is so many different activities,” he continued. “We have deputies driving around the county all day long, and there’s going to be the occasional auto accident. We also have deputies manning the jail, and there are going to be inmates who make accusations. You’ll also see claims related to the conditions of confinement.

“The courthouse doors are open to everyone and, even when the claims are baseless or fraudulent, you still need to defend yourself,” he added.

The decision to settle claims or contest them in court ultimately rests with Loar, whose agency participates in the Florida Sheriffs Risk Management Fund, which collects premiums from 59 of the state’s sheriff’s offices and provides liability, automobile and workman’s compensation insurance for their employees.

“There is a risk to going to court and fighting these cases, because, if you get to trial, you never know what a jury is going to do,” Harpring said. “But that risk has to be weighed against the cost of having a flood of people filing baseless or fraudulent claims.

“We evaluate whether it’s a legitimate claim or not,” he said. “If we find there was liability on our part, we will reach out and try to settle the claim, and we will be fair.”

But they won’t be foolish: Despite his aversion to settling baseless claims and longshot lawsuits, Loar seldom loses in court.

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