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State shouldn’t be national champ in paying damages

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Dec. 28, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
December 29, 2010 9:16 am

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

When a person is injured on a state highway, when a foster child is abused or when a released prisoner commits a horrible crime, sometimes it’s because state employees were negligent in performing their jobs. In those cases, it makes sense that the state would pay damages.

But should it pay more than any other state?

That’s the case now because Washington exposes itself to more liability than any other state in the Union. In fact, compared to states of equal population, Washington paid out four to 12 times the amount in judgments last year.

Take Massachusetts and Arizona, for instance. With comparable populations of about 6.5 million, they only paid out $13 million and $8.5 million, respectively, in 2009. Washington paid out more than $50 million – plus spent another $19 million in legal costs fighting the lawsuits.

That’s almost $70 million that isn’t going toward such state duties as fixing highways, providing oversight of foster children and tracking released prisoners – the very actions that could prevent future injuries, deaths and lawsuits.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna wants to make the state at least somewhat less vulnerable to big payouts – especially in those cases where the state is only minimally to blame. This state’s “joint and several liability” policy means that the party with the deep pockets – such as the state of Washington – can be stuck with most or all of the damages.

McKenna, a Republican, is working with Democratic legislators on ideas that include limits on damage payments, not holding the state liable for employees’ reasonable professional judgment (such as in not removing a child from a home) and dividing the cost of judgments according to the parties’ share of blame.

McKenna will need bipartisan support for whichever of such reforms make the most sense. Any of them likely will face heavy opposition from the powerful trial lawyers’ lobby. With the budget crisis making every dollar saved a dollar that doesn’t have to be cut, it’s in lawmakers’ best interest to work on this issue.

When the state is truly at fault, it should compensate victims. But Washington shouldn’t be the outlier on this issue, paying out many times more than any other state. Hitting the 70th percentile would be just fine.

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