Hotel housekeeper Lorena Collazo never saw it coming.
Collazo, now 49, was waiting with her family in their Mercedes-Benz sedan at a metered red light at the end of an on-ramp to the 22 Freeway in June 2017.
Out of nowhere, Collazo’s car was slammed from behind by a vehicle driven by an Orange County sheriff’s investigator who had dropped his radio microphone and didn’t notice the Mercedes until it was too late. Court records show the investigator, Chad Webster Phillips, had dropped his mic before.
Collazo, who sustained severe back injuries, and her family were awarded more than $2.2 million in damages by an Orange County jury.
The award to Collazo was among the $15.1 million in damages paid by the county for lawsuits and claims against the Sheriff’s Department over the past five years. More than $4 million of the total was for allegations of negligence, misconduct and civil rights violations by sheriff’s personnel.
The lion’s share of overall payments went to victims of traffic accidents caused by sheriff’s employees, according to county data provided to the Southern California News Group in response to a state Public Records Act request.
The damages are merely a fraction of the department’s overall yearly budget — more than $1.3 billion in fiscal 2021-22, for an agency with nearly 1,500 deputies. But the damages still reflect expensive lapses in conduct and judgment.
“When we approve some of these settlements, there’s utter frustration and a ‘What the hell was the deputy thinking?’ tone,” said county Supervisor Don Wagner. “Some (cases) are a routine cost of doing business, but some trouble me and trouble the board.”
Wagner said some settlements and awards involve the kind of incidents that probably can’t be avoided with more training.
“But as (Sheriff Don) Barnes will tell you, you hire from the human race and some of these deputies are just bad people,” Wagner said.
The Sheriff’s Department declined comment.
Unlike Collazo’s award, some claims and lawsuits never got to a jury. Among them was a settlement with the family of Danny Pham, a 27-year-old nonviolent car thief who was doing a six-month stint at the Orange County jail in 2017. Near the end of his term, jailers moved Pham into the same cell with an admitted double-murderer who targeted homeless men.
Pham himself had been homeless at times. And after only a few days, he was killed by his cellmate, Marvin Magallanes, an Anaheim man who had already confessed to knifing and slaying two others.
Pham’s attorneys say sheriff’s personnel had placed a lamb with a lion. They alleged Magallanes had been “sexually aggressive” with a previous cellmate and had attacked a deputy jailer before he was put into the cell with the victim. Jailers also lied about doing scheduled security checks, they claim.
And those mistakes and misdeeds cost the county $2.7 million in a settlement with Pham’s family.
Another major payout went to the family of Chok Tok “Richard” Rha.
Family members called sheriff’s deputies to their La Mirada home on a summer night in 2019 after Rha, 35, went into a naked frenzy. He was schizophrenic and possibly on drugs, relatives believed. They needed someone to control Rha, who had been previously contacted five times in as many weeks by law enforcement.
But the responding deputies ended up killing the unarmed Rha.
Deputies hit him with their fists and elbows, Tased him and placed him in handcuffs, alleged a lawsuit by the family. Deputy Justin Ramirez placed Rha in a carotid chokehold, and continued even after he lost consciousness. the complaint said.
Deputies should have known that Rha’s inability to regain consciousness amounted to a medical emergency, the suit said, but they did not give medical aid.
The price to settle the lawsuit: $1.5 million.
In one settlement, a man who allegedly was roughed up by deputies filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations.
Kent Coddington has just gotten home from work in March 2018 when deputies pounded on his door in San Clemente. They were there because a neighbor had complained that Coddington had walked across his driveway while returning from work — a basic trespass.
Deputies ordered Coddington to leave his home and come out to the patrol car. His lawsuit alleges the deputies became aggressive after Coddington questioned what the commotion was about. When Coddington requested that any citation be mailed to his house, deputies punched him in the face and slammed him down onto the concrete, the suit alleged.
Deputies continued to wrestle and punch Coddington as his wife called for them to “stop,” the suit said.
According to Orange County Superior Court records, no criminal charges were filed against Coddington.
The altercation cost the county $675,000 for false arrest.
“How much of (these payments) could have been avoided? I don’t know,” Wagner said. “But clearly some of it can.”