Lake Forest mayor, city attorney explain injury lawsuit after questioning from public – Orange County Register
Facing some criticism during a recent City Council meeting, Lake Forest Mayor Scott Voigts explained his filing of a lawsuit in 2019, and the subsequent payout he received for an injury he said he suffered because an uneven portion of public sidewalk caused him to fall from his wheelchair.
Voigts and the city attorney addressed the injury suit at the Tuesday, July 20, council meeting, after a pair of Lake Forest residents questioned why the claim had not appeared on a City Council agenda when the mayor sued the city or when he received the settlement in November 2020.
According to court records provided by city officials, Voigts was paid $135,000 for the 2018 incident, in which he said he broke his femur. Another $15,000 was paid to his wife, who the suit argued suffered emotional distress and physical injury after the incident, which caused her to miss work.
The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court in January 2019, said Voigts fell from his wheelchair after hitting a section of cracked sidewalk at Pittsford Park in March 2018. The mayor said he was on a walk with his wife at the time.
City Attorney Matthew Richardson said during the meeting that injury claims such as Voigts’ are handled through the city’s insurance provider, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, and do not to pass through the City Council or city attorney. Those cases are the insurance authority’s responsibility “to handle, to litigate or to settle with their funds,” he said.
Attorney Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles-based litigator who served as the Los Angeles County Bar Association president in 2018 and is the current chairman of the Loyola Law School board of directors, said such settlements often do go through some sort of an approval process by a governing body like the City Council in cases like the one the mayor filed.
“It is more common than not that you have governmental entities that approve a settlement, even if it’s being paid for in whole, or in part, by insurance,” he said. A situation such as the mayor’s case, “would seem to me to require some degree of disclosure that the city is dealing with this, to make sure that he’s isolated from the decision making process.”
But Lake Forest officials said the process through which tort claims, like Voigts’, are investigated and settled in the city is customary and has been in use for decades.
“The way we run it here is how everybody runs it,” said the city’s risk manager Keith Neves, adding that insurance company workers are the experts in dealing with such suits.
“They do this every day,” he said of the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority. “You would want them to work through claims, to ask the questions, to do the investigations, than to have city staff. City staff doesn’t have that experience. That’s why you hire insurance companies.”
Lawsuits that would be handled by the city attorney and discussed with the City Council include claims made involving city code or other legislation. In those cases, council members would be updated during a closed session, “and then that would be reported out” to the public, Neves said.
In an interview, Voigts said the scrutiny over his lawsuit comes from critics who “feel that (because) I’m on City Council, I have no rights as a citizen.”
“I’m a citizen of the city of Lake Forest, and I have have the same rights of everybody else,” he said. “If you slip and fall, or if I get hurt on the job, or if I get hurt at City Hall, I mean, we have insurance to cover this.”
He said his claim was “thoroughly investigated” by the insurance company and attorneys. Voigts said he retained “very little” of the money he was awarded after paying the costs of two hospital stays and lawyer fees.
“There wasn’t a huge settlement and I did not get rich on it,” he said. “If I had it all over again, I would have rather not gone for a walk that day with my wife.”