Washington state Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) figures the state Legislature could close the operating-budget gap by at least $40 million simply by protecting the state from paying more than its fair share of liability damages and subjecting large liability awards to legislative approval.
This week, Schoesler introduced Senate Bill 6458, a measure to address what he calls “lawsuit abuse.” If passed, it would let budget writers free up much of the $150 million currently appropriated to settle lawsuits, pay awards and defend the state against damage claims.
“No one would be denied justice by this bill – it wouldn’t prohibit people from suing the state or their local government for damages or from collecting if they prevail,” Schoesler said. “The aim here is to bring some fairness to the process. State and local governments would no longer have to face picking up the entire tab even when others are at fault; it also would give the Legislature the final say if an award exceeds a certain threshold.”
In 2003 a similar approach was included in the operating budget approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, Schoesler said, but was shelved during final budget negotiations. The savings was estimated at $40 million then; he expects the reform would generate at least that much now.
Under current law, even if the state or local government is found to be only 1 percent at fault for an injury, it can be held 100 percent responsible for monetary damages. As an example, Schoesler cited a case stemming from a 2007 traffic collision in the Kirkland area. The state was judged to be 40 percent at fault due to a traffic-signal location, but was ordered to pay 96 percent of a $30.2 million award – a decision under appeal – because the other defendant was not insured for more than $1 million.
“It’s been 50 years since the Legislature waived the state’s sovereign immunity and opened the door to lawsuits that reach into the ‘deep pockets’ of government. That’s long enough,” Schoesler said. “The concept of ‘fairness’ is tossed around the Capitol regularly these days, so let’s play fair when it comes to liability. If the government is 40 percent at fault, it should pay no more than 40 percent of the damages.”
Schoesler’s bill, which has solid bipartisan sponsorship, also would return to the Legislature a measure of control over large awards or settlements involving the state. An individual plaintiff would receive $1 million immediately, and joint plaintiffs $2 million, but the payout for any amount awarded beyond those levels would be subject to lawmakers’ approval.
“If the state or local government is truly negligent it should be held liable. But if this bill becomes law, and pursuing jackpot-sized awards means going before the Legislature in addition to a jury, those who look for ways to rope the state into questionable or outlandish damage claims might have to rethink their strategy.
“Fewer cases involving the state would mean fewer settlements and lower defense costs, freeing up money that could be used for the core priorities of government,” said Schoesler, who is a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and serves as half of the Senate Republican budget-negotiating team.
“It’s a reform that makes sense regardless of the state’s financial situation, but especially now,” he added.
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