CROWN POINT — Lake County lawmakers are preparing a multimillion-dollar bond issue to pay for dozens of legal settlements reached with plaintiffs who sued the county for alleged wrongdoing or misconduct.
At an informal session of the County Council on Thursday, attorneys for the Board of Commissioners introduced an ordinance that would authorize the sale of up to $5 million worth of bonds over a 10-year period.
Funds raised in the bond sale would go toward the payment of at least 24 settlements reached in 2018 and 2019. The total settlement amount for those cases is about $3.3 million, according to documents presented to lawmakers at the session.
County officials say the so-called judgment bond is necessary because there is not enough money in the county’s self-insurance fund to pay the settlements and related legal costs. The fund has been reduced to roughly $700,000 as of last week, according to Larry Blanchard, the commissioners’ finance director.
Lake County has used bond sales to cover legal settlements several times in the recent past, and this year’s issue is expected to be significantly smaller than the previous two. Lawmakers approved a $7 million judgment bond in 2015, followed by a $7.5 million bond in 2017.
The proposed $5 million bond issue is greater than the current value of finalized settlements because there are several cases under negotiation that almost certainly will add to the settlement total.
The largest of those cases, a lawsuit by the family of late Gary transit police Officer Burt Sanders, was settled Thursday for $680,000, according to commissioners’ attorney Matthew Fech. Sanders’ family sued Lake County 911 in 2017, alleging that dispatchers failed to direct medics to find a way into the locked church where Sanders died of a heart attack.
A separate settlement involving a workman’s compensation dispute is expected to be finalized next week for $33,000, according to Fech. The two cases will bring the settlement total, including associated legal costs, to about $4.2 million, he said.
At Thursday’s session, the commissioners' attorney, John Dull, told lawmakers the settlements fall into three broad categories of legal action against the county — police and corrections-related lawsuits, workman’s compensation disputes and one-off cases that “should never happen again” after being corrected.
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About half the settlements come in lawsuits against the Lake County Sheriff’s Department for a range of alleged misconduct, including negligence and excessive force by police and corrections officers. The largest of those was with Carlos Gallegos Esqueda, a Hammond man who sued after a Lake County police officer slammed into his car during a vehicle pursuit in 2016.
Gallegos Estrada, who suffered irreversible brain damage in the accident, settled with the county for $550,000 in March, according to county records.
Most of the lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department stem from incidents that predate Sheriff Oscar Martinez’s tenure. Martinez has made reducing mistakes that could lead to civil lawsuits a priority in his first year in office, according to Fech.
“The previous administration cost the Lake County taxpayers a significant amount of money,” he said, referring to disgraced former Sheriff John Buncich, who is serving a 188-month prison term for bribery and fraud. “The new administration is doing a much better job in training officers.”
In a statement provided to The Times on Friday, Martinez said he was “confident that the attorneys who defended these lawsuits for the county, and the county commissioners, worked together to negotiate each settlement in a manner that was fair, reasonable and equitable to the taxpayers of Lake County and the parties involved in each case.”
Other high-dollar settlements to be paid through the judgment bond include an agreement to pay $354,000 to a group of Lake County police officers who were owed unpaid overtime under federal labor law. The lawsuit was settled July 1, according to county records.
Despite sticker shock from the proposed bond figure, lawmakers generally were pleased that county attorneys managed to negotiate a smaller total settlement obligation than in previous years. Further reduction in judgment amounts could come with improved training for police officers and other county employees who interact with the public, according to Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland.
“The only thing we hope for is better training,” he said Thursday. “I think that would help.”
The County Council is expected to hold a first reading of the judgment bond ordinance at its next meeting July 16. If necessary, lawmakers can reduce the bond amount at a second reading in August.