Divvying out money to defend the county against lawsuits has become routine for the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. At Monday board meeting, supervisors agreed to spend more than $20,000 dollars in attorneys fees . That is just part of the $250,000 dollars the county spends each year defending itself in lawsuits. Right now there are about 125 lawsuits pending against the county. District 2 Supervisor Larry Benefield said the types of lawsuits vary.
"Something as simple as a windshield broke by a weed eater or to civil rights claims filed on behalf of inmates at the county jail or automobile wrecks," said Benefield. "So there is constantly some type of litigation going on with the county."
The county must answer every suit filed or risk losing by default. That means taxpayers foot the bill for investigating and defending hundreds of lawsuits no matter what the claim.
"It pains me to see the taxpayers spending money to defend a lawsuit where a prisoner is upset because his sandwiches and his hot dog is not warm enough to suit him," said Joe Meadows, county attorney.
The county attorney says a new grievance system has dramatically reduced the number of lawsuits filed against the Sheriff's department by inmates. In the year 2000, there was not a single prisoner lawsuit filed. However, Sheriff George Payne says his department is still dealing with suits that preceded his administration. Some as many as six years old.
Sheriff Payne said "It does require man power. We have one or two at the sheriff's office who a good portion of their job is just handling some of these past lawsuits and handling the paper work flow to keep the law suits current."
Payne says already in 2001 there have been two lawsuits filled by inmates against his department, and that's two more the county will have to pay to defend. The total expenses from lawsuits cost the county about 400 thousand dollars a year.