Harrison attorney fees cost nearly $1.4M

GULFPORT — Harrison County Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. and his department have been sued for more than $563 million in damages in nearly eight years.

Cy Faneca, the sheriff’s attorney, said nearly all the claims have been resolved in favor of the sheriff, and only three cases resulted in settlements with a total payout of $55,000.

A report Faneca compiled for the Sun Herald includes claims and lawsuits handled since January 2000, when Payne first took office. Some of the complaints involve claims filed before 2000.

From a legal perspective, the county has invested nearly $1.4 million in attorney fees and about $149,000 in related costs to protect a potential loss of $563 million, Faneca explained.

Of 91 civil lawsuits handled since 2000, 68 were dismissed. Two of the three complaints that were settled involved incidents before Payne took office.

“Working the sheriff files requires all the time of at least two attorneys and sometimes three,” said Faneca. “This work also requires one dedicated legal assistant, one dedicated legal secretary and part of the time of another legal secretary.”

In addition to attorney fees of $100 an hour, legal complaints involve out-of-pocket attorney costs to pay court reporters for depositions and for investigators, who conduct surveillance, find witnesses and take preliminary statements, Faneca said. The costs include reports, expert witnesses, travel costs, copies and postage. Nearly 70 percent of the lawsuits involved the jail, with complaints alleging excessive force by jailers, a lack of protection from violent inmates and a lack of proper medical care. A few alleged that inmates’ rights were violated by being forced to hear religious services. Nearly two dozen civil cases are pending, including the wrongful death lawsuit in the beating of Jessie Lee Williams Jr. at the jail on Feb. 4, 2006. The county has paid $87,000 in attorney fees on the Williams lawsuit and about $4,300 in costs. The civil case is set for trial in August 2008. Eight of the pending lawsuits allege excessive use of force and seek more than $332 million in damages.

A high-profile lawsuit filed prior to the Williams case involved James Melear’s complaint that the jail failed to protect him from a fellow inmate who gouged out his eyeballs in December 2001.

Melear sued for $2 million. The county paid $108,000 in attorney fees and about $43,000 in related costs. A judge dismissed the case in March 2006. Melear’s attacker, James Allen Gibson, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received 15 years on top of a life sentence he was serving for his wife’s murder.

Laws that protect the rights of the incarcerated make it easy for them to file a complaint in federal court. Inmates often file a lawsuit without an attorney’s help. If they can’t afford the filing fee, it’s waived.

In a recent lawsuit, an inmate accused an attorney of refusing to communicate with him. A judge found the attorney hadn’t agreed to represent the inmate, and dismissed the case.