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Lawsuit settlements

Posted: August 16, 2012 3:16 p.m.
Updated: August 17, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Recent settlements of lawsuits filed against Sheriff Jim Matthews resulted in a payment by the county’s insurance company of $110,000 to three different plaintiffs. There are a few observations to be made:

(1) the legal system in this country often invites litigation;

(2) insurance companies will often settle lawsuits rather than let a jury decide them, which exacerbates No. (1); and

(3) it would be wise for Sheriff Matthews, who’s done an enviable job as a law enforcement officer, to be more circumspect in the future when speaking about others.

The three defamation suits all revolved around comments Matthews made after taking office in January of 2011. In one instance, the plaintiff was never even named by Matthews in his comments. In another instance, the plaintiff had become what’s known in legal circles as a “public figure” by offering himself for political office, which usually means actual malice must be proved in the courtroom. Many attorneys would probably have given those suits little chance of success. But during the mediation process (see point 2 above), the insurance company decided to pay.

Two suits remain, one filed by former Sheriff Steve McCaskill, who certainly qualifies as a public figure, and the other by former Chief Magistrate Eugene Hartis, who well might, also. Attorney Lewis Cromer, who filed all five suits, says there is “blood on the moon” in those two, a vaguely Biblical reference. We aren’t sure what he means by that term -- perhaps that there’s little chance of settlement and that the two suits will go to the full measure of the courtroom. We wouldn’t bet on that.

The final point is that these comments weren’t made by Sheriff Matthews about criminals and had little or nothing to do with his job. They were more political than anything else. Yet county taxpayers must ultimately foot the bill, for it is they who pay the insurance premiums, which well might rise, to the company that agreed to settle. He’s an effective sheriff but we hope he’ll limit his future comments to issues surrounding the law enforcement world and putting criminals in jail.

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