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Salt Lake County has paid out more than $2.2 million to residents in legal claims over the past five years for everything from fender-bender accidents to a case involving the death of an 11-year-old girl who was crushed by a county snowplow.

According to county records, some 565 claims were filed last year against the county. The claims were filed when citizens asserted the county or its employees had damaged them in some way.Since 1978, the county has operated a self-insurance program to manage such liability claims and independently operate a workers' compensation fund. Along with the actual claims, another $2.3 million in taxpayers' money was spent in administrative and legal fees between 1989 and 1993. During 1993, some $316,422 was paid out in automobile and liability claims. The county spent $467,997 in administrative and legal fees.

While the administrative and legal fees may appear costly, Donald Sawaya, chief deputy county attorney in charge of governmental services, said they would have been much more costly if the county had paid a private insurer to operate its risk management program.

Sawaya said that self-insurance saved the county over $727,000 last year for automobile and general liability insurance coverage. It also amounted to a savings of $716,000 for workers' compensation expenses.

Sawaya said that despite the belief that government won't compensate citizens when they're injured, the county does settle cases where the county or its employees have been at fault. At the same time, the county will fight frivolous claims or claims officials feel are unjustified.

Six settlements, costing more than $170,000, amounted to about half of the money paid during 1993. They include:

- An out-of-court settlement where the county paid $55,000 to the family of Amy Vernon, 11, who was run over by a county snowplow in February 1990. The girl was sledding down a hill in the area of 4600 South and 3300 East. She was run over by the wheels of the snowplow when the operator didn't see her. She died three hours later. In its initial claim to the county, the family had asked for damages in excess of $500,000, records show.

- The county paid $53,788 in attorneys fees and costs involving Steven Lee Griffin, a Magna man who filed a civil-rights lawsuit against James A. Strong, a Salt Lake County sheriff's office detective.

Griffin claimed that his rights were violated because of a coerced confession taken by Strong in 1986 when Griffin was arrested for child sexual abuse. He was convicted and spent two years in prison.

The state court of appeals agreed with Griffin that his confession had been obtained through coercion. His conviction was over-turned and he was subsequently released from prison. A jury verdict in U.S. District Court ordered the detective to pay $13,000 in damages and attorney's fees, records show. Much of the money went to settle debts in bankruptcy court, county officials said.

- The county paid an out-of-court settlement of $20,000 to Brenda Sloan, the widow of Larry Sloan, after she filed a wrongful-death suit following her husband's death in 1990. Brenda Sloan claimed that a physician at Salt Lake County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, Dr. Wallis Craddock, misprescribed a drug used in treating alcohol addiction. She claimed Craddock didn't thoroughly check Larry Sloan's medical history to know he shouldn't have been given the drug because of childhood hepatitis and hypersensitivity to the drug's compounds, records say.

- In a case involving the constitutionality of the county's loitering ordinance, Marden R. King, West Valley City, won $16,604 in a U.S. District Court judgment. All but $872 went to pay the fees of local civil rights lawyer Brian Barnard. King, who was waiting to umpire a baseball game in July 1989, was cited for loitering by sheriff's deputies. He refused to cooperate with them when asked what he was doing sitting in his truck reading a book. The judge in the case said that King's arrest under Utah's loitering statute was illegal, records show.

- In a discrimination case involving a handicapped employee dating back to 1987, the county settled for $10,513. The woman claimed she had suffered job discrimination because of her multiple sclerosis. Despite attempts to find a suitable job for the woman, the case was settled because the woman could not adequately perform on the job, county officials said.



Liability claims against the county

Year Claims paid

1989 $677,998

1990 $309,085

1991 $604,149

1992 $366,016

1993 $316,422

Total $2,273,670