Keep Washington Safe

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Leave our public disclosure laws alone

In Rob McKenna, Sunshine Laws on February 20, 2011 at 7:15 am

By Karen Koehler

Led by Attorney General Rob McKenna, local and state governments are asking the legislature to roll back our public disclosure laws.

The excuse – why budgets of course.   Politicians know the best time to change a popular law, is during a time of financial crisis.  “Blame it on the budget” is a handy tactic.

Public disclosure laws are called sunshine laws.  When we ask, our government has to show us what it is doing.

It’s a bad idea to allow government to drag its heels, or to refuse to produce documents.   Sure, it may be inconvenient .  But without these laws, newspaper reporters wouldn’t be able to expose government waste and abuse.  And we taxpayers wouldn’t be able to find out the truth.

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McKenna Shows His True Colors (again) re State Immunity

In DSHS, Facts About Washington State Tort Damages, Gendler Injured Cyclist Case, Governmental Immunity, Police misconduct, Rob McKenna on February 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Below is an excellent piece that appeared in the Trial News Feb. 2011 issue (Trial News is the newspaper for Washington State Association for Justice members). It also appeared as a blog entry at WhatsupWSAJ.com, copied and pasted immediately below.

By Carol Johnston – It should come as no surprise that our Attorney General, Rob McKenna, is once again initiating an all-out assault on rules of law which hold the state responsible for its tortious wrongful conduct. McKenna is using his elective office as a bully pulpit to mold public opinion into a political agenda — one that eliminates governmental accountability for harm it causes to its citizens.

His agenda seeks to expand sovereign immunity, eliminate our remaining shred of joint and several liability, and demands caps on damages, particularly for state agencies ‘most vulnerable to liability claims.’ (The Seattle Times, December 30, 2010).

Instead of focusing on escaping full responsibility for irresponsible acts, reform should focus on cleaning up the internal problems of agencies responsible for harming our most vulnerable citizens – the kinds of problems that needlessly cause tragedies giving rise to the legitimate liability claims that Mr. McKenna apparently deplores.

It is unconscionable that Mr. McKenna advocates for open government for developers to sue local governments and uses taxpayers’ dollars to sue to stop health care reform, but fights against the rights of the citizens he swore to protect. We must not sit quietly on the sidelines and let our AG dismantle fair and just rules of law that protect the innocent. He has been on this warpath before – and lost. We will fight to ensure he loses again.

McKenna is wrong on the facts of the cases he cites, wrong on the cause of damage payouts by the state, wrong on the solution to avoiding payouts from the state budget for wrongful acts, wrong that a cap on damages will in any way provide ‘full and fair compensation’ (his words) for the lives torn to shreds by the state’s tortious conduct, and wrong when he uses other states’ liability payouts as comparables.

It is shocking that in McKenna’s recent media pieces for his tort reform campaign he uses the disingenuous “rephrase-the-facts technique” to give the public a grossly false understanding of some very horrific examples of tortious conduct by the state and trivializes a family’s tragic loss. Unlike the version in McKenna’s op eds, Tracy Joe Enoch-Jevne was no mere check forger when she killed Michael McGuire. She had four prior DUI convictions, a drug conviction, and had skipped several court appearances. She should have been completing a DUI sentence in jail but was mistakenly released and lost in the system despite a court order to supervise and control her. She went home, got drunk, and got behind the wheel. A state agency and the City of Algona failed in their most basic duties. Michael’s family will live with this failure every day for the rest of their lives.

Take the Micky Gendler case. McKenna describes it as ‘the case of the bicycle rider whose wheel got stuck in a rut on the Mountlake Bridge and was paralyzed in his fall. The award was $8 million.’ (The Olympian, January 2, 2011).

The true facts are:

• The state was aware for more than eight years that similar incidents were caused by the same roadway defect, which went unrepaired throughout those years, and then fought to hide the records of those incidents;

• The state fought Gendler’s request for dis­closure of previous accident reports under the Public Records Act until Divi­sion Two recently upheld a Thurs­ton County Superior Court ruling requiring disclosure;

• The defect was more than the half-inch width called for in the design and was large enough to catch a bicycle tire;

• The aberrantly large gap was created when the drawbridge’s deck was replaced during a seismic retrofit;

• WSDOT’s risk manager said that state officials assumed the gap wouldn’t be a problem since most bicyclists use the sidewalk or the right lane when crossing the bridge, even though they knew bicyclists doing what Gendler did were following the law and rules of the road;

• The gap was filled with epoxy after this incident;

• The state settled the case rather than risk a jury verdict. WSDOT’s risk manager said Mickey did nothing wrong and the settlement was fully justified;

• Micky Gendler didn’t just fall when his tire instantly came to a grinding halt in the gap; he was thrown over the handlebars and his head slammed against the roadway, splitting his helmet and paralyzing him from the neck down; and

• The $8 million the state voluntarily paid will cover Gendler’s medical costs but not the pain and havoc that have become his life.

It’s cases like this that prompt Mr. McKenna to call for a return of sovereign immunity. But what justification can the person elected to keep Washington safe possibly offer for such egregious conduct to go unrecognized, as if it never occurred? How much did it cost to fill the gap with epoxy? How much more time is Mr. McKenna spending on his personal political agenda rhetoric than it took to fill the gap with epoxy? What risk assessment process did the state utilize regarding this problem as required by statute? Why have the statutorily mandated risk assessments by the state decreased over the past few years? Why did McKenna omit from his sample cases those real-life examples which show compellingly how CPS and other state agencies have for years failed to properly do their job? The truthful answers to these questions lead to a conclusion other than the one advocated by our AG.

Don’t fight to hide the truth, Mr. McKenna. Instead, do your job and fight to fix the dangers that kill and maim the law-abiding citizens of this wonderful Evergreen State.

Carol N. Johnston, WSAJ EAGLE member, is a partner in the firm of Otorowski Johnston Morrow & Golden. Her practice focuses on major medical negligence, pharmaceutical and medical devices products liability, and government liability. She is president of WSAJ for 2010-2011.


DSHS fails six abused brothers

In DSHS, Governmental Immunity on February 3, 2011 at 3:19 am

By Karen Koehler

Child Protective Services has a notorious record.   It is supposed to protect the vulnerable and weak from abuse.  Statutory law requires that teachers, ministers, counselors, doctors and others report abuse so this agency can do its job.  Yet time and again, it utterly fails to do anything.

The state has settled a lawsuit for $6.55 million filed on behalf of six brothers who suffered years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse despite 33 complaints filed with Child Protective Services (CPS) over their treatment.  That’s  RIGHT – 33 COMPLAINTS. 33 opportunities to step in and stop sexual, physical, emotional abuse and torture of these children.

Each time a case like this hits the press, CPS and DSHS say they have made “new” changes.  The case worker has left.  Some other excuse. Lawsuits uncover these shameful failures.  And of course, the government wants to stop the lawsuits by abolishing claims for these types of cases.  But until we as a society do something about actually changing  CPS, lawsuits are all we have.

House Bills Introduced Re Government Liability on 1/28/2011

In Governmental Immunity on February 2, 2011 at 1:38 am

As anticipated, the attached bills concerning government liability were introduced this last week by Representative Eddy.  Click here to see the bills in their entirety: Bills from 1st Leg Session 1.28.2011

Immediately below is an excerpt from the PDF (see pp. 7-8), which provides details of the bills related to shielding the government from liability.

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House Bill 1681 Read for the first time on 1/28/2011. Referred to Committee on Judiciary.

An ACT Relating to employer liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior; adding a new section to chapter 4.24 RCW; and creating a new section.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON:

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1. The legislature finds that the decision of the supreme court in Rahman v. State creates an unreasonable standard for employers by imposing liability for actions of employees in circumstances that are beyond the ability of employers to control. An employee is not acting within the scope of his or her employment when the employee, without actual, implied, or apparent authority, transports a passenger or invites a passenger to ride in a vehicle being used for the employer’s purposes. The legislature intends by this act to overrule the holding in Rahman v. State that an employer is liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior for negligent acts of its employees that result in injuries to unauthorized occupants of vehicles used for the employer’s purposes.

NEW SECTION. Sec. 2. A new section is added to chapter 4.24 RCW to read as follows:

(1) An employer is not liable for civil damages under the doctrine of respondeat superior for the negligence of its employee or agents resulting from the operation of an employer vehicle, for injuries to a third party who occupies or operates the vehicle, if the employee or agent permitted the third party to occupy or operate the vehicle either in violation of any express policy, rule, order, or other instruction of the employer, or without the express or implied authorization of the employer. This section applies even where the conduct that immediately caused the harm is within the scope of the employee’s employment. [emphasis added]

(2) For the purposes of this section:

(a) “Employer” means any employer, including private emplyoers, the state, and po0litical subdivisions of the state.

(b) “Employer vehicle” means a vehicle owned, leased, or rented, or otherwise used by or for the benefit of the employer, and includes employee-owned or other private vehicles when such vehicle is operated for the express benefit of the employer.

(c) “Third party” means a person who is not an employee or agent of the employer.

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