It was fitting to see Associated Press writer Mike Baker’s assertions about Attorney General Rob McKenna’s handling of lawsuits repeated on an editorial page, because that’s where such allegations belong. However, we strongly dispute the claim, as echoed by The Olympian editorial, that McKenna falls short on his vow to reduce lawsuit payouts.
McKenna’s done exactly what he promised. In 2004, he said he would reduce lawsuits by “requiring state agencies to obey the law, and by seeking reforms that limit lawsuit abuse.”
The number of lawsuits against the state dropped by nearly 18 percent between the 2004 and 2011 fiscal years. Of the lawsuits filed in 2010, we knocked out 68 percent with zero payouts.
It’s also indisputable that McKenna, as promised, has consistently pursued reforms to limit lawsuits.
Immediately after taking office, he co-authored a law review article that revealed Washington’s laws, unlike laws in every other state, provide virtually no limits on when the state can be sued – and for how much.
Over the next six years, we worked with lawmakers from both parties to craft solutions.
Every major lawsuit-reducing proposal was quietly killed in committee.
The 2011 session was a prime example. Under current law, when a person sues the state over a car accident, the court is not allowed to consider whether the injured person was, as required by state law, wearing a seat belt.
Our bill to allow such evidence to be considered was killed in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Because we’ve pointed out that the Legislature has a big role in defining state tort liability, The Olympian and AP pieces suggest that McKenna is trying to shift responsibility. But it’s a fact that state legislators have chosen not to update our laws to protect taxpayers from runaway lawsuits.
Legislators’ inaction has, in effect, painted a “sue me” sign on the state. The losers are state taxpayers. The winners are private-sector lawyers, who take approximately one third of every award – plus expenses.
Last year was, indeed, an expensive one. But payouts vary from year to year because each case and plaintiff varies. In 2010, the state settled with a high-earning attorney who was seriously injured while bicycling across Seattle’s Montlake Bridge.
That same year, the state also settled with an anesthesiologist who was killed in Stevens County when his car hit a rut in the pavement on SR 291. Suits were filed against the state claiming that mistakes in road design contributed to the accidents. In both cases, projected economic damages were high because the projected lifetime earnings of the claimants were very high. These two settlements alone resulted in $15.5 million of the payouts for the year.
Attorneys at our office can’t control the severity of cases and facts they’re tasked with defending. Yet, the AP and The Olympian blame the state’s lawyers for not working miracles.
Still, we’re proud of the results we obtain on behalf of our state’s citizens – and we take exception to any suggestion that mistakes or mismanagement on our part is to blame for a single, particularly costly year.
We do note, however, that neither piece offers much to support this accusation. Instead, they simply quote a single source who blames McKenna, and by extension, the attorneys at our office.
That source, the state’s risk manager, seems more motivated by politics than professional objectivity.
This is troubling since, by law, the state’s risk manager plays a key role in settlements. But perhaps some good will come out of these discussions, including legislative reforms to protect taxpayers from costly lawsuits against the state.
Brian Moran is chief deputy attorney general.